Last month, the Quebecois cartoonist Guy Delisle met with Simon Ostrovsky, a journalist for CNN and documentary filmmaker, onstage at Housing Works, in New York, to talk about Delisle’s new book, Hostage. The 436-page comic tells the story of the kidnapping of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) administrator Christophe André in Chechnya in 1997 and his detention, for 111 days, in solitary confinement, chained to a radiator. In his minimal line and with his personable observational style, Delisle, who now lives in the South of France, has also made travelogues of life in Burma, P’yǒngyang, Jerusalem, and Shenzhen. Ostrovsky has reported extensively on North Korea, the West Bank, and Ukraine, where he was captured and imprisoned for three days in 2014. These overlapping experiences in life and work produced a fruitful conversation on storytelling and journalism, the anxiety of living in dangerous places, and André’s uniquely psychological ordeal. —Ed.
I had the pleasure of reading both Hostage and your earlier book, Pyongyang, and it turns out we share a lot of interests. I covered Chechnya and the North Caucasus in Russia, and I also covered the issue of North Korean laborers working all around the world and earning money for the North Korean regime—that was an obsession of mine for two years. I was looking at it from the perspective of the North Koreans sending their workers out of the country to earn hard currency for this currency-starved regime, and I never had any idea that, as a Westerner, you could actually come into the country and work there, and that’s what Pyongyang, your book, is about. How did you end up working in North Korea?
I was there in May of 2001, before September 11, when North Korea became the rogue state, the axis of evil and all that. Citizens from a lot of countries were going there at that time. Spanish, French, and Italian animators were outsourcing in North Korea, for instance—it was four times cheaper than China. I was there from France on a contract to supervise the quality of the animation and work with the animation team, though the animators were on the upper floor and I could never really see them. I was working on a monitor, looking at the animation, taking notes—This is good, this is not good.
The French company would send you the sketches, and then they would have the North Korean workers in a kind of animation sweatshop to fill out the rest of it? How did it work?
I don’t know about a sweatshop. It was just an animation studio, as there used to be in Germany and France, but everything is outsourced now. It’s exactly the same kind of studio, with fifty or sixty people who work and lay out all the scenes. So in an episode of twenty-six minutes, you have maybe two hundred layouts, and I supervised the boards so that the quality was equal to what they were asking for in Paris. North Korea has a tradition of animation, just like in the Philippines, just like in China, like in Vietnam. They used to have studios that made short films you could see in festivals. Now they don’t do that so much—they do outsourced work, and they make a lot of money. Animation in North Korea was, I think, second in earning money for the country in the year I was there. So I felt that at least they were making money with something other than counterfeiting, drugs, and weapons. Read More