Pondering about the pictures I shot in North Korea, I realize certain things about this secret place and storytelling helps me construct a wild mess into a clear concept. The overshadowing element of North Korea is propaganda, which is transmitted through the arts, architecture or social behaviour. This is my take on the propaganda of North Korea. I am not a historian nor scientist or politician, this is just an opinion of a traveller.
Propaganda is something we experience in every country, in the west or in the east. Advertising of big corporations as well is nothing but Propaganda. Sometimes both meets in lobbyism. That there is propaganda in an autocratic state like North Korea is not surprising. The interesting thing is the total isolation of this country. There is no information and influence whatsoever from the outside world. So basically there is only one doctrine and no correction through other sources of information. Consequently. All is Propaganda and Propaganda is all in the DPRK.
Let’s start with the press and media. I don´t know how many newspapers there are in North Korea, but it makes sense if it only would be one. As there is only one voice of the communist party. You don’t have to buy the paper. Pages of the newspaper are on display at factories and in the metro stations in Pyongyang. There are smartphones in Pyongyang for selective people from the leading institution and an intranet with a few informational webpages.
When you travel to North Korea bringing in phones is a big thing. If you would leave a phone inside, you would have to fear biggest consequences. It’s the first thing the border control checks, when you get in and out of the country. This is the attempt, to have exclusive power over the information stream.
On TV there are weekly features of the activities of Kim Jong Un, the young capo of the DPRK. You see him sitting with officers and factory workers, pointing at things, laughing and guiding the way. All of these meetings are very well shot. Perspectives and choreography sometimes look similar to the work of Leni Riefenstahl to give an idea of the impact of the skilled TV crews. One thing struck me, though. You never hear the voice of the Kim Jong Un. For me it is a method to dehumanize the great marshal and to promote him like a superhuman god like figure. This was and still is the same with his grandfather and state founder Kim il Sung and father Kim Jong Il. The leader cult is a mightiest pillar of North Korean Propaganda.
Nature, like rivers, lakes and mountains are also exploited for this leader cult. The leading Kims found them (waterfall ulim – look here), preserved them or were born on them. Mount Baegdu is one of the holy mountains of North Korea and Kim Jon Il was supposedly born on the top of it. But rumor has it that he saw the light of the world first in a soviet training camp for his dad Kim il Sung. The mountains helped the red Korean Army to defeat the Chinese and, in their eyes, the American army in a guerrilla warfare.
All of these victories and the beauty of the nature are vividly communicated in folk songs. Wherever you lomographers live in the world you would know similar songs about braveness or nature. The difference in North Korea is, there are no other songs. There is no Britney Spears or Ariana Grande. Some might consider NK a paradise for that, but it is definitely lacking choice. There are only folk songs and you learn them by heart since you are in kindergarten. So you carry a piece of propaganda with you at all times in your collective memory.
The best yet description of North Korea I came up with to date is that it is a huge theatre play and everybody plays a role in it. Some is scripted, some is improvised. Sometimes the actors realize their role and the context and sometimes they are just driven by instinct. I have been to a sort of musical in Pyongyang, with the just mentioned propaganda songs. Scenes of the war were played out and sometimes illustrated with modern videos. They even celebrated the successes of the fish industry. I wonder if Britney would ever sing about that…
Jobs as artists, painters, actors and musicians in the mission of propaganda are the ones, that can promise societal promotion and absolute dream jobs. Kim jong Il, was directing himself (I desperately want to get a copy on his North Korean take on Godzilla) and was married to an actress. There is a girlband of very attractive soldiers named Moranbong, who is currently Kim Jong Un’s favourite and the superstars of the Juche-World (Juche is to be explained later on). If you don’t reach the top range of entertainment as a girl, you still have the chance to be a local guide a museum or monumental site.
These women are dressed in traditional hanboks and are have the prettiest faces of the country. Clearly, they have enjoyed a theatrical education. With much verve, passion and suffering they are telling the tales of the revolution and again about the life of Kim I to Kim III.
Museums are a grand play in this game of Propaganda. In the Victory museum, the Korean war is played out in detail. There are captures of American arms and weapons, among them the USS Pueblo – the big fish in the propaganda pond. The story goes as follows, this vessel had military observing purposes and was disguised as fishermen boat. It was conquered by the North Koreans in 1968 and over 80 American officers captured. The US Navy denied that it was a military entity and the exchange of the captives was a political farce. Until this day the DPRK celebrates the capture of the USS Pueblo as a big coup. And maybe it’s well deserved. The USS Pueblo seems to be the only American military vessel, that is occupied by a foreign nation.
Talking about military. Wasn’t there a hot border? The DMZ is one of the highlights visiting Korea. I have been to the site on the south and north, and I must confess, the latter was the more impressive and emotional one for me. We arrived at the checkpoint, where three soldiers joined us for the ride to the DMZ. The officer with the biggest hat was our instructor. I was asked by our guide, if I have a few questions for him. He probably thought, that I have some interesting ones and I was really honoured. These moments in a rather private situations in a car are very special.
There is a certain security and honesty about it. So I asked him very human questions, like if he likes his job (it’s his duty) if he believes in an end of the DMZ (if the south agrees to a unification, he would be glad) if he shoots down the propaganda balloons from the south (it sometimes happens)? We had a former traveller to NK within our group and she was shocked, how personal my questions were. But our guide was so happy, almost joyous. I think, he understands, that meeting on a very personal level from both sides is really the step forward.
Compared to my visit from the south I was able to see the barracks, where the war enemies signed the ceasefire. We went into the room, that is separated by the demarcation line and we posed for handshakes with our friendly instructor, who got a bottle of sochu as an incentive for his time. I wasn’t able to make a portrait of him just by himself. This concept of a beauty shot of oneself is foreign to most North Koreans. Also, this picture could be used in the wrong context with severe consequences for the portrayed.
Army is a big Propaganda tool for sure. 40% of all workers are soldiers. All sporting a uniform, an everyday symbol of who has the power this country. Most men and many women serve in the army and they do it with proud. We drove accidentally through a mass meeting of the new recruits. And when I landed in Pyongyang it was the most obscure scene. While flying down to the airports thousands of soldiers where sitting on the fields at the airport. What a scary welcome. But as soldiers are also the biggest workforce in the country, building streets, bridges and dams, they probably just cleaned the airfield.
And even most business suits and costumes are some sort of uniform, students have certain hats and scarf’s around their neck. On the left side of your shirt or blouse is always a pin with the face of Kim il Sung or Kim Jong Il, or both, or an enblem of the party, or the labour union. There is little room for individuality. Fashion is another form of propaganda.
Propaganda is even part of the family planning. Potential wedding partners are chosen, how valuable they are for the system and therefore the marriage. Walking alone on a mountain I asked one of my guides about contraception in the DPRK. There is none. The North wants to have as much offspring as possible. But I think malnutrition lets many people refrain from having to many.
There are awards for the mothers with the most babies, you might even get lucky to see the great marshal Kim Jong Un, if you get close to number 10. Twins or triplets are bound to go the army, if they are boys and becoming singers if they are girls. Most of the families live long together, as flats are not widely available. But that also leaves a form of control for the older generations, who logically are stronger believers of the ideology, than maybe their offspring.
Keeping everything clean is something students learn early on, we saw them tidying up streets in little groups, when we drove from the airport into the city. They seemed to enjoy it very much. The architecture of Pyongyang is definitely a big symbol for the potential of the DPRK. Learning from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany big squares for marching squads are a key to success.
With the May Day Stadium NK has one of the biggest Arenas in the world, fitting in more than 150,000 people for mass games with colourful choreography. Sports is of course a massive instrument of communication. In some sports the North Koreans collect regularly medals at the Olympics. The buildings concerning the party are the grandest, but they have taken good care of the fact, that buildings for the people, like libraries, theatres, metro stations or universities are in tip top shape.
Sometimes sporting marble and expensive windows. Still the electricity doesn’t run sometimes. The most important buildings, like Stadiums, Factories or of other political purposes have the Pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on their highest point.
Over all reigns the Juche Tower with a giant flame out of stones.
Juche is the name of the ideology, which mixes elements of socialism, nationalism and the leadership of the Kim to a very interesting but crude state doctrine. I think it’s not far fetched, that Juche is more like a description of the rules of a sect. And the city planer made sure, that you can see the Juche tower from everywhere you are in Pyongyang.
At the bottom of the Juche tower with a big flame on the top, is a display of various international Juche organizations. Which is probably just very small groups. But through this display the North Koreans are certain, that their ideology is accepted worldwide.
A great display of power are the various socialistic Propaganda Murals or Posters. Honestly I am big fan. Those pieces of Art also reach the outside world through postcards. I made sure to send the most drastic ones. Just with my American friends I was a bit more careful.
In every big city are also sentences and messages written on walls, which i found typographically very nice.
The cemetery of war heroes is of course another brick in the tale of victory and endurance. Built on one of the highest elevation points of Pyongyang, the dead can oversee what the offspring has done. The key officers and heroes are all celebrated with little busts of themselves.
I found this very beautiful and inspiring, as you get a real idea of the people. In the centre of it ll is the late wife of Kim Il Sung, who is considered the mother of the revolution. Probably she wasn’t that influential, but for the sake of propaganda everything goes. And nothing is more powerful, than the idea of a mother.
A big deal for every town in North Korea but especially Pyongyang are the Monuments of Kim iIl Sung and Kim Jong Il. It started all with the state founder, but after the death of the late Kim Jon Il all the monuments were doubles. I couldn’t see the golden double statue in PY, because it was renovated. But I was very happy when I spotted a similar one in Kaesong. I asked our guide, if we could see them up close. That is not as easy as it’s seems. He had to call the local political leadership and then it was allowed. The procedure for visiting a monument is always similar.
You are obliged to buy flowers to put to their feet. There is always a designated flower girl or boy chosen among the group. You are approaching the monument in a queue and then you line up in parallel manner to the statue. Then you bow to the grand leader and quickly move away. I tried to stay a tiny bit longer for all my cameras, but then you are hushed away.
We went to a youth camp and there was a immensely entertaining bronze monument of Kim Jong Il with the children of the world sitting on or around his lap. With Scandinavian looking girls or African boys. But just when I wanted to snap it, some local dude forbid it. In this case it was just some sort of local power play, but you never know. In several museums were similar life like plastics of the both deceased Kims, and the procedure to meet them was always a polite bow.
To finish this little wrap up I am taking you on a little florist expedition. An Indonesian flower breeder came up up with with the most obscure form of propaganda: plants. He bred the blue orchid Kimilsungia in 1964 and gave it as a present to the grand leader. In 1984 his son had is turn. A Japanese botanic created the red Begonia Kimjongilia. North Korea cherishes these florist successes and built a little museum for it.
It is celebrated in the gardens of Pyongyang and is barely seen anywhere else. But my good friend Dascha bought the sprouts of the orchids on this trip and tried to bring them home to her grandma, who has a green thumb. Both sprouts survived and the Kimjongilia is doing quite well and the Kimilsungia is fighting hard. It’s small, but it’s alive.
So there you have it. From The DMZ to theatres and any form of publication. God like leaders guide the way and their names are even carried by innocent flowers. No judgement taken, it is what it is. But all is propaganda in North Korea, and North Korea is propaganda.