North Korean Posters: Design Politicized
Part of Vital Signs
To understand North Korean propaganda posters, it is important to understand North Korean ideology; if the text on the poster is the written ideology, the image on the poster becomes the drawn ideology. This research provides a window into this logic, by identifying the themes and symbols recurring in North Korean posters, and considering their impacts through physical reproduction and digital circulation. The posters studied are mostly from the collection of Willem van der Bijl who holds the largest collection of mid-century to contemporary North Korean posters in the world. By comparing these posters over time and with those now found online, it is possible to see how and why the content of the posters has changed as well as how the posters are displayed both in the urban environment and digitally, revealing the meaning behind the images and their powerful role within North Korean society and as propaganda for foreign audiences.
Visual Research of the Design Environment of North Korean Posters
After the establishment of the Juche Idea North Koreans used the term seonjeonhwa when referring to posters. Seonjeon means propaganda and hwa means art.1 I want to clarify that in this research, “poster” means the seonjeonhwa of North Korea.
In North Korea—From the Capital to the Countryside
The Mansudae Art Studio is located in Pyongyang, and provides employment to around 4,000 people. According to The New York Times, it is not only the biggest art studio in Pyongyang, but also “one of the world’s biggest art factories.”2 To become a member of the Mansudae Art Studio, former propaganda artist Song Byeok says that one’s class of origin is critical. In other words, it is nearly impossible to work at the studio if one’s parents or the worker him/herself is not a party member. There is intense labor involved in poster reproduction. After the posters are designed at the main center in the city, they are distributed to rural regions, where they depend on human labor, because of a lack of good quality printing facilities.
Song Byeok was a propaganda laborer in the Hwanghae province in North Korea for seven years, and is now a pop artist in South Korea.3
Byeok escaped North Korea in 2002, and he can be seen as the most relevant source for my thesis as he has witnessed the process of production of North Korean posters.
Byeok’s work consisted of enlarging propaganda posters by hand. His work would start after being given a small version of an original poster, which was drawn by a propaganda artist from the city. He had to copy it perfectly, exactly copying all the text in the poster and the drawing style of the original poster. He mainly dealt with big posters, which were approximately 7–8 meters wide and 5–6 meters high, and were painted on used, white canvas. When he drew on the canvas, he used to mix the acrylic paints with starch because it would protect the poster from rain or snow. Without starch, the poster would get washed out.
The canvas would be used over and over again; his job was not only to draw on the canvas, therefore, but also to erase the previous posters. According to Byeok, there are only a few North Korean print factories and especially in the countryside, there are almost no factories that can deal with printing. Also, paper is not a plentiful resource in North Korea, so for these reasons, hand-painted posters appeared.
The government hangs posters in every public institution and official space; they also hang posters in places that many people will pass through, such as the main streets, the plazas, and parks. Posters also appear in people’s homes; when they turn on the TV, propaganda posters are broadcast with a narrator shouting aloud the propaganda slogans. People live surrounded by propaganda and can be said to be brainwashed. Byeok himself confessed that even though he hardly slept because of the amount of work, he was not tired because he thought it was his honor to spend time working for the leader. The North Korean government gives not only detailed guidelines for the poster design, but also for all drawing components, so there is no space for the artist to express his or her own style. After Byeok moved to South Korea, he went to study art at an art university. He said that his biggest challenge was the school assignments in which he was asked to draw freely, because until then, he thought great art was simply about imitation
Government Website Naenara and Instagram
One of the North Korean websites, Naenara, (my country) provides a platform for spectacular photos, exaggerated messages, and a selection of posters made between 2008 and 2015, which focus on ideology, the military, industry, and cultural events. Each year, approximately 30-50 posters with English captions are uploaded. The website supports nine languages, such as English, Spanish and Chinese.4 The uploaded content addresses all areas of North Korean life, such as politics, culture, traveling, trading, music, art, and history to promote propaganda messages. This website is managed by the Korean Computer Center (Chosun Computer Center), which was established in 1990, and has about 2,000 workers not only in the main office at Pyongyang, but also in China, Germany, and
Also, the government uses Instagram very actively. They have several accounts where they upload their photos and posters with a description in English. Cultural theorist John Berger has said that the art of the past is not presented in the same way as contemporary art. Instead of authority, there is a language of images. In this sense, what is the meaning behind the North Korean government’s changing usage of new media, and how can we understand the new meanings of posters in this context?
First, by using new technology, the methods of distribution are variable. In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin remarked upon changes in media and technological development. He drew a comparison between seeing a theatre play and a movie: he saw them as totally different experiences. This means that as technology develops, even the same content can be experienced differently. The North Korean government still uses the posters on the street, in the plazas, and official institutions, but at the same time, the posters are also presented via the Internet. Even though the content of the posters is the same, it is a totally different experience when people are surrounded by the posters in their daily lives regardless of their will, and when we see the posters on the Internet by our own choice.
Second, the posters presented on the Internet deliberately target foreigners, not the North Korean public. What we have to remember is that the posters which have been uploaded onto the Internet cannot be accessed by the public in North Korea. Jang Jin Sung, a North Korean defector, said that most of the public can’t access the Internet, and that there are only few people who work at the government center who have access to the Internet.6
North Korea’s Instagram account is updated several times a day. By uploading photos of Russian soldiers, the government pay homage to the Russians. They sometimes post an image of a Palestinian soldier as encouragement to the Palestinian struggle, and they also use their Instagram account to demonstrate their friendship with Cuba or Iran. Also, one of the merits of Instagram is that there is more freedom when uploading, if we compare it to the poster section on the government website, which is in chronological order. For example, there is a poster that depicts the alliance between North Korea and Cuba against the U.S.A. It was published in the 1960s, but they reposted that poster on Instagram in 2015 when there was news that U.S.A and Cuba had attempted diplomatic reconciliation.
Another example of recreating meaning from the original copy in digital space, is how the appearance of the posters has been updated to avoid criticism for outdated trends. Farmers are mainly women who wear working clothes, for example, but in a poster from 2015, the female farmer wears a Western, violet-colored suit, and her hairstyle is also Westernized. Her suit and the bundle of Asian rice she is carrying do not match at all, but this shows that what the poster symbolizes is more important than the reality of the image. The bundle of rice symbolizes the food, and the woman’s suit reflects the attempt to keep up with global trends. This examples reflects how the government reproduces its posters and creates new meaning for old posters.
Third, while others may think that these posters seem outdated or too clichéd, the North Korean government firmly believes that the posters play a role in picturing their government. In other words, the active use of posters on their website and social media suggests that they believe that posters are still an effective medium through which they can convey their ideas.
- Hyojin Kim, “Understanding the Daily life of North Korean People: Based on the Analysis of Posters made in 1950-60” The World Conference on North Korean Studies, 2015, p. 421, accessed Mar 4, 2016,http://www.wcnks.com/files/wcnks_guide02.pdf ↩
- Amy Qin, “An Art Powerhouse From North Korea”, The New York Times, (Jan 25, 2016), accessed February 8, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/26/arts/design/cambodias-new-angkor-museum-created-by-a-north-korean-art-factory.html?_r=0 ↩
- Chris Green, Alexandra Lincha, “Song Byeok Set For Stateside Debut!” Daily NK, (Jan 16, 2012), accessed April 10, 2016, http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk00100&num=8690 ↩
- “Posters,” Naenara, accessed Feb 10, 2016, http://www.naenara.com.kp/en/gallery/index.php?year=2008 ↩
- South Korea Ministry of Unification Website, accessed Feb 10, 2016, http://nkinfo.unikorea.go.kr/nkp/search/search.do?eicode=S_336833&query=%EC%A1%B0%EC%84%A0%EC%BB%B4%ED%93%A8%ED%84%B0%EC%84%BC%ED%84%B0. See also Arno Majerbrugger, “Laos Signs Software Deal with North Korea,” Investvine, (Mar 16, 2013), accessed Mar 15, 2016, http://investvine.com/laos-signs-software-deal-with-north-korea/ ↩
- Jang Jin Sung, personal interview with the author, Feb 3, 2016. ↩