STEVE INSKEEP, host:
One of the few foreigners who has seen North Korea is Guy Delisle. He's a French-Canadian cartoonist. He worked in North Korea in early 2001. His employer got cheap labor to draw thousands of frames for cartoons there.
Delisle turned his experience into a graphic novel called Pyongyang, and he's on the line from his home in France. Welcome to the program.
Mr. GUY DELISLE (Cartoonist): Thank you.
INSKEEP: You know, when I imagine North Korea, the thing that I imagine is the color gray: gray clothing, gray buildings, gray landscapes. And that's just what I imagine. But then I opened this graphic novel and realized that you'd done the entire thing in shades of gray.
Mr. DELISLE: Yeah, that's how you feel when you're over there. Pyongyang is a very clean city, but at the same time they don't have too many colors, because they don't have publicity and everything is kind of bleak.
INSKEEP: You mean the city doesn't have a lot of billboards for camera companies and car ads and so forth.
Mr. DELISLE: No, it's nothing like all the rest of Asia, when you can have publicity from all around the world. They have a sign on every building, but it's only propaganda, actually, for the Great Leader and for the country.
INSKEEP: You mentioned the Great Leader, that's Kim Il Sung, I guess, the country's founder.
Mr. DELISLE: Yeah. And the first thing you have to do when you arrive there, they bring you to the highest place in the city of Pyongyang, where they have the big statue, and they give you flowers. But you have actually, it's not for you, you have to give it to the statue of the Great Leader as a sign of respect in front of the big statue.
INSKEEP: You know, in this graphic novel, which is basically a diary of your experiences while in North Korea, you write that after experiencing so much of this propaganda, you ask the question, do they really believe the BS that's being forced down their throats. Do they?
Mr. DELISLE: I'm sure that depends on belief that - and they even belief that outside North Korea things are much worse.
INSKEEP: You're saying peasants believe that, people in the countryside. Why them?
Mr. DELISLE: Yeah. Yeah, because they have no source of information. There is only one television. It's North Korean. And there is only one radio station. It's North Korean. The newspaper, there's only one. So imagine in any country, what would it be? Over there they have no clue what's happening outside.
But the people I was with, these guys were the happy few who've been outside the country. They've seen Paris, they've seen Rome, so they knew something was going wrong in that happy socialist system that they are trying to build.
INSKEEP: Where did you stay?
Mr. DELISLE: When you're a tourist or when you stay there, there is only three hotels for foreigners. I was in - it was I think 50-story high, and we were only three foreigners.
INSKEEP: It's a 50-story building and there were three foreigners living inside the building?
Mr. DELISLE: Yeah. And there's even a revolving restaurant at the top. But there was nobody in there. So it was very strange. And they had a casino at the basement, and a discothèque. But the North Koreans were not allowed to go there. I guess it was a bad example for them. So this place was run by Chinese from Macau.
INSKEEP: How much talk was there about war, or imminent war, in North Korea when you were there in 2001?
Mr. DELISLE: Oh, it's quite crazy. That's one of the most strange feelings you have when you're there, because on the news, the news opens with victims of the Japanese occupation, victims of the American war - how they call it, the American war?
INSKEEP: Oh, that's the Korean War, as we would know it here in the United States. Okay?
Mr. DELISLE: Yeah. You really have a feeling that the war just stopped a few months ago, and you really have the feeling that the war can start again sometime next week.
INSKEEP: Did you think that the government was using the constant threat of war to maintain its power?
Mr. DELISLE: Yeah, for me it was the only logical answer to all that. They don't want to have trouble with the population, so they keep them in a state of fright.
INSKEEP: Guy Delisle is the author of Pyongyang. Thank you very much.
Mr. DELISLE: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: You can hear more of our interview and see excerpts from Pyongyang by going to our Web site, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.