Just read Guy Delisle's Pyongyang. Why is this piece of latter-day orientalism such a respected graphic novel? Delisle goes to North Korea, lives among ex-pats, doesn't get to know any Koreans and, not surprisingly, decides they're all crazy, naïve and decidedly unhip. 

Delisle scores points by ridiculing the absurd dynasty of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, but he does so from such a smarmy privileged perspective that he comes off as an obnoxious tourist. He is not only irritated by the constant propaganda of the regime, but also with people’s bad taste. Their music is weird and they have never heard of Daft Punk. There aren’t enough shopping malls, clubs or good restaurants. Why aren’t they more like us? Their attempts at ostentation are undermined by their lack of cash: he is dismayed that the marble walls of a museum are adorned “with light switches in cheap plastic housing.” How uncivilized!

The book neatly demonstrates a point Slavoj Žižek makes about ideology. Delisle wants to show us that North Koreans are, in his not subtle terms, brainwashed by the ruling ideology. This form of ideology works like the phrase: “They don’t know they’re doing it, but they’re doing it.” If they would only listen to Delisle, they would wake up, realize what they are doing and stop it.

But Delisle himself is submerged in what Žižek would call postmodern ideology. Imagining himself to be beyond ideology, Delisle is even more submerged in normative Western liberal values. By then end of the book the Koreans are well aware that he won’t be convinced about the greatness of their country, but he becomes increasingly evangelical in his exhortations to them about the value of free speech, democracy and free market prosperity.

Delisle’s main flaw is that he caricatures North Koreans on the basis of the officials he interacts with, who are guides and translators, in other words, people trained to present the regime’s official face to the outside world. I’m sure it’s not easy to find dissidents in the country, especially when you don’t speak the language, but it’s strange to imagine they don’t exist.


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