Advertising – North Korean Style (2): Where a picture says a thousand words.

Remember this guy? The golden Kim Il Sung? He was where I left the discussion last time.

He is on one of the 3 decorated stations in the Pyongyang metro that we visited, larger than life and twice as golden. I want you to keep him in mind when we revisit the metro later in this post.  He isn’t the only item in the station I want to show you.

Last time we were talking about how The DPRK regime has clearly observed the power of advertising in the capitalist West and has used some of the tricks that work so well in the West, to instead endear themselves and their government to the North Korean population. Pictures and other visuals were a key component in gaining and then holding power.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, when Kim Il Sung came back to North Korea after WWII, North Korea had around 2.5 million illiterate people. Not surprisingly, there was a huge push for education. In 1946 the first University was built and in 1953 compulsory primary schooling was introduced. In the meantime, it makes sense that painting, murals and other visual arts would be crucial in gaining the largely illiterate population’s support for the new government and its programs.

This reliance on visual aids is still heavily used to this day.

These two photographs (with the helpful English subtitles) were in the foyer of the 6-star hotel that we stayed in when we went into the country. Whenever any of the leaders visited a factory, school, mine or farm, photographers were clearly on hand to document the visit, with the photos and captions proudly displayed for evermore.

Do you notice the phrasing of the captions? It was always the same – the leaders were not just touring and observing… they were always giving “on-site guidance” because their knowledge is deeper and more intuitive than anyone else’s.

Notice too, how Kim Jong Un is smiling and others around are laughing. By all accounts, he’s a very funny man and when we were in North Korea we saw many photos of him looking like he was full of warmth and good cheer. But in the West, it’s rare we see any photos of him cracking a grin.

Photos aren’t the only images that are used. In every foyer, whether it be a school, a hotel or a public building, there are massive paintings of at least one of the older 2 leaders. This one was in the foyer of the primary school in Pyongsong that we toured. Kim Il Sung is surrounded by happy children, Kim Jong Il is over to the side looking adoringly at his father, while the children are in an idyllic place, with more children rushing to join them. They are shown literally hanging off the two leaders, as metaphors for the Korean people as a whole, being supported and uplifted by these two Great Men.

See the bouquet of flowers at the foot of the painting? They were fresh flowers, and I’d bet my bottom dollar that there’s a fresh bouquet brought there every day, probably by the families of the students. If I was running the school I’d have the flowers brought on a roster, with each family’s child/ren having the honour of bowing and laying the flowers down in front of the portrait. Nothing like teaching them young!

This portrait of Kim Il Sung is in the foyer of the Grand People’s Study House, which was built to honour him on his 70th birthday. It was probably one of the biggest paintings we saw and I regret that I didn’t have a person in the frame to show you how large it is.

Mt Paektu in the distance, which is the most sacred mountain in the Korean peninsula for both North and South Koreans, the pine forest behind him with its positive ions and the blossoms of the foliage with its renewal and growth after the hard times of winter. Everywhere the North Koreans go, they see paintings like this all around them. They are steeped in the mystique of Kim Il Sung, in particular.

And here we are down in the metro again. This is at the very end of Puhung Station. See the shine? This isn’t a painting – it’s a mosaic made up of very tiny tiles, entitled ‘The Great Leader Kim Il-Sung Among Workers’. This is one of many mosaics that decorate the walls of these stations. They are all incredibly nationalistic in style, usually with political images of the leaders and the workers, but sometimes with views of Pyongyang itself and of vistas showcasing Korea’s natural beauty.

Actually, when you walk up to get a closer view, you can’t help but notice that Kim Il Sung’s face has far more detail than the others’ faces.

These mosaics run the whole length of the stations. They must have taken ages to plan and complete.

The next two photos are portions of the mosaics that run either side to the big gold statue of Kim Il Sung that is at the beginning of this post. Running for at least 30 feet alongside both platforms, these mosaics feature workers and citizens from all walks of life joyously celebrating the glory that is Kim Il Sung.

There’d be at least a hundred different figures all facing the statue, with their flags, signs and ecstatic expressions showing just how incredible their leader is. No matter where a commuter looks, there’s the evidence of how fortunate and blessed he or she is.

I’m sure by now you recognise the mountain behind Kim Jong Il! He’s standing in the worker’s parka that he wore in public in winter for the last decade or so of his life. Underneath that, he’s wearing the khaki uniform that again, he always wore in public to show that he was always working for the people and so didn’t have the time or the inclination to waste on dressing in expensive suits. (Sadly, in private it was another story. But the North Korean people haven’t an inkling of it.)

The lights in this station are meant to look like fireworks, celebrating all that he has done for and sacrificed for the country. Notice the newspapers in frames so the commuters can see what’s going on? When the people left and we were the only ones on the platform, we asked Mr Kim, one of our guides, what things were being reported on. The big news of the day was that it was the 30th anniversary of Kim Jong Il being appointed the head of some committee or other. Later on that day we saw women dancing in their national costumes in celebration of this.

The man has been dead since 2011! But still, they dance.

But BY FAR the most important images are these two. Every single house has them. Every single classroom, office, business, restaurant, factory … even, to my surprise, every single train carriage. No matter where a North Korean goes, these two faces are above them. These are the only shots used, so they are as familiar as the back of your own hand.

Every house is expected to have these hung up in the main living area. They are to be kept clean and dusted, and woe betide you if one gets broken. We were only in the DPRK for 10 days and even in that short space of time, we saw these faces so often that they became utterly familiar.

“Ah, there’s our mates!” we’d say as we walked under them. How much more powerful must it be if you were born under these faces and literally grew up under them all your life?

Here they are in the English classroom that I taught in at the Grand People’s Study House. They’re almost as big as me!

One morning towards the end of our tour, we went for a walk around central Pyongyang. By this stage, I had become very blasé about the pictures and signs, but I liked this one. It’s rare to see a woman featured at the forefront of a battle scene. This was one of a series of images on the side of the State Theatre.

Dotted in and around Pyongyang and other cities were billboards like these. They were everywhere, usually with cheering, victorious soldiers, but I particularly liked this one with the nuclear missiles flying up above the cheering population. I don’t know what the words below mean.

Every time you walk down the street, you are surrounded by images like this, or of the national flag.

Speaking of which, here it is.

It’s a clever design, with strong colours, (ironically the same red white and blue of the hated American Aggressors… and our flag too, come to think of it!), and it looks very effective when you see a whole heap of them in a line or grouped together on a street corner. The red star in the centre is placed everywhere. We noticed it a lot at the DMZ.

On our walk through Pyongyang, I decided to ask Un Ha, our other North Korean guide, what a couple of the signs were saying.  I couldn’t quite remember the exact wording, but I’ve got it down in my book as being something about the constant fight for reunification with South Korea and how they will never give up.

Aha! Another sign! I asked Un Ha what it was saying.

“We promise to uphold the leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un with the utmost loyalty.”

It makes you wonder.

Here is a population being groomed to adore their government above all else, while we’re being groomed to believe that KFC is finger-lickin’ good, that Red Bull gives you wings, and that maybe she’s born with it – or maybe it’s Maybelline.

There’s more I want to show you. Advertising is incredibly powerful.

 

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How boredom spawned a side hustle.

The life of a teacher can sometimes be tedious, infuriating, hilarious or action-packed. One thing that makes it an amazing job is that the holidays are great (heh heh), but also that every day is different. The kids make me laugh every single day, and of course, when you’re working with people there’s always something that makes a day stand out. Sometimes it’s the kids themselves, or sometimes it’s because you get to participate in excursions or activities in other subjects that you normally don’t get to see.

This PLANKS incursion was one of them.

Last week the year 9s had a double period in the hall working with these mini planks. I was there with one of my 9 classes for the first period when they were introducing the whole activity.

The guy running it told the story of how he and his mate started the business.

They were working as labourers for a builder and one afternoon they were demolishing a house. It was raining and they had to down tools while waiting for the rain to stop. They were ripping up floorboards before the rain hit, so to pass the time they cut up some boards into smaller pieces and had a competition as to who could build the tallest structure.

That was the germ of the idea for their business.

If a group of grown men could let a couple of hours slip by while they were engrossed in this, how much would schoolkids like it?

I have to hand it to them – most people would have had a fun afternoon, then thrown the makeshift planks into a fire and forgotten all about it. But these guys felt they were onto something.

They experimented with different lengths and thicknesses of wood, whether they worked better with curved or straight corners and then tested their concept out on primary, secondary and tertiary students to see if there was a specific demographic that they needed to avoid.

Turns out that there isn’t – every age like stacking up blocks and seeing how high they can go and how creatively they can balance them.

The company has been coming to the school for at least 3 years, I’d say, with this idea. The kids loved it, especially the boys who sometimes have trouble sitting still in class. These two boys are a couple of kids I had last year who were a little… shall we say ‘rambunctious’?… but look at what they managed to put together!

This activity also suits the more methodical kids who like to create things. These 3 boys are very quiet and painstaking in their English work. They combined forces to build this beautiful-looking structure.

At the end of the period I had to leave. Before I left I snapped this shot.  I was really impressed with how tall they’d managed to get it. Apparently, it ended up being way taller than they were and they needed chairs to continue to build it up.

The kids loved it. The noise of chattering and the crashing of blocks was LOUD. They were also really respectful of the structures that other students had put together that were intricate and large, stepping carefully around them and making sure that they didn’t accidentally knock anything over.

I really loved how such a simple idea that began as a way to stave off boredom on a rainy afternoon has ended up as a business that challenges kids, gets them to think creatively and to work together as a team. Not every side-hustle has to be a MLM, a blog or an Uber-gig. These guys were able to take a simple idea, look outside the box and have turned it into a year-round earner. Imagine how many schools they can take this to in Melbourne alone? Let alone kindergartens, child-care centres and old people’s homes?

I love a successful side-hustle!

Advertising – North Korean style (1): Where leaders are larger than life.

A little while ago I was sitting at home on the couch,  a dog either side of me and one balanced on my lap with my laptop, reading blogs before going to work. It was about 6AM, still dark and pretty chilly, and I was filled with impotent anguish about having to grab my things and leave for work in the next 20 minutes to catch my train.

Be that as it may, that morning, as I was working my way down the list of blogs in my feed reader, I saw there was one by The Escape Artist. Ever since I heard Barney on the Choose FI podcast, I’ve been reading his blog. Turns out on this particular morning he’d written about advertising. If you haven’t already read it, go ahead. I’ll wait.

Barney wrote about the power of advertising. I loved his post, but one thing struck me. It’s all too easy to read about the hold that advertising has on us, particularly when we’re galloping along on the road to FI/RE, being frugal, getting out of debt and investing the surplus money we have kicking around.

“Oh yes, advertising is evil but it doesn’t affect me!” we say as we prepare our home-made dinner and settle into a night at home with a board game or book or Netflix binge.

But this is all slightly smug. How do we know how deeply or not we’re affected when we’re already neck-deep in a society that’s awash with consumerism? Is there any way to tell how advertising affects us when we’ve been bombarded with “Buy this!” “Subscribe to that!” since we were in our cradles?

There might be a way.

What if you were able to visit another society where consumer advertising was not and never has been a ‘thing’? That’s a huge point of difference right there. But instead of being indoctrinated into the joys of buying the latest fad, these people have been immersed in the advertising of a totally different kind of commodity.

Enter North Korea. Absolutely no consumer advertising whatsoever. Not so much as a single billboard about a single product. Instead, there’s advertising of a very different sort: the constant stream of adulation about the leaders and the regime who run the country.

The beauty of this trip for me was that because it’s indoctrination of a totally different sort to the one that we’re used to, it sticks out. We can observe how it’s being done and we can’t help but notice the effect it has on the population. Some of the methods they use are very obvious; others are more subtle, but they all tie together in an intricate jigsaw that holds the population in thrall. Probably like consumer advertising does with us.

The people of North Korea have absolutely no access to the internet. Their intranet has around 6 websites and they’re all run by the Government. Their tv is filled with patriotic songs, marches and military films of missiles going up and tanks being paraded around. Their ‘news’ programs are chock-full of absurd statistics of how well the country is doing in every conceivable way, under the wise and loving leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un. Anyone coming into the country have their bags searched in case anyone tries to bring in literature such as travel books, newspapers and bibles.

I’ll be writing in the next few posts about how the government of North Korea has harnessed the power of advertising and has used it to sell itself to the people. This will take several posts to cover, as I want to look at a few different ways that they’ve manipulated sights, sounds and messages to convincingly sell their brand to the population. Just as advertisers work their psychological games out here in the West.

But first, a little background:

For around 150 years, up until WWII ended, North and South Korea was all one country under the control of Japan. The Japanese treatment of the Koreans was very harsh, to say the least. Korea was looked on as a resource to be exploited, with both its natural resources (such as gold, timber and fishing) and its people, being taken full advantage of.

Kim Il Sung was the first leader to take control after the Japanese were booted out after WWII and the Korean peninsula was divided arbitrarily into North and South by the Americans. He was a soldier in the USSR army during the war and the Russians put him into power in Korea when a leader was needed, but the North Koreans firmly believe that he was a freedom fighter against the Japanese and this was what caused the Japanese to leave Korea. They aren’t told about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So Kim Il Sung was and will always be the saviour of the Korean people.

This belief is fostered in many ways. The use of statues is one that is used extensively throughout the country.

This photo is a place in the middle of Pyongyang which we reached as the sun was starting to go down. The people of North Korea love their current leader, but they absolutely revere the two leaders that have gone before him, particularly his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, (the one on the left.) Visitors to this site are encouraged to buy flowers, which they then lay at the feet of the Leaders, then you go back to your group and you all bow in unison. Then you quietly leave to make way for the next group.

The symbolism is obvious.

The whole area is laid out on a grand scale, with enough space for a few hundred people to gather. There is silence, enabling contemplation of the leaders and all that they’ve done for society. Their statues tower above us. There is a picture of Mt Paektu behind them, which is the most sacred of all the mountains in Korea, and where the second leader, Kim Jong Il, is said to have been born. (He wasn’t – he was actually born in Russia but the North Koreans don’t know that…)

 

It’s the custom for wedding parties to come and pay their respects to the Leaders on their happy day, which of course fosters closer links to the Leaders as they are tied into memories of important milestones in each person’s life. This group arrived as we were leaving. It is unthinkable not to visit the Leaders on a day such as this. Naturally, there are places like this in every town and city in the DPRK, so people can come and pay their respects; and to be seen to be coming and paying their respects, which is almost as important.

These statues were in a regional city that we went to for lunch after we visited the DMZ. It was a dull day and yet the bronze figures shone in the little light that was around.

Here is the way leading up to them. The two figures are set high above the city, with solar panels attached to the lights that illuminate them at night. Power blackouts are a frequent occurrence in the DPRK, but these statues will never be in darkness. The leaders will always be there, shining a constant light over the whole city as they gaze benignly down over all.

Again, the symbolism is obvious.

This is the ‘old town’, one of the few cities in North Korea that wasn’t flattened by the US bombing in the Korean War. This view is less than 2 minutes walk from the statues in the photo above. Compare the feeling of space and tranquillity around the statues compared to the cramped conditions here. Elsewhere in the town there are apartment blocks that date from after the Korean war, but these of course also have people living together in close quarters.

So much space, serenity, landscaping and light surrounding the images of the Leaders enlarges their importance in the minds of the population. It’s an effective piece of the jigsaw.

It’s not just in the towns. The pervasive cult of personality pops up everywhere. This is a statue located on a co-operative farm midway between the capital city of Pyongyang and the coast. This statue is huge, but it’s not anywhere near a large population base – it’s out in the middle of the countryside. The story behind this statue made my blood boil, but it also clearly illustrates the importance that the regime places on “advertising” itself to the people.

For around 30 years after the Korean war,  North Korea outstripped South Korea in terms of quality of life. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union. Suddenly, there was no more food, machinery, fuel and financial help coming from a superpower to prop up Kim Il Sung’s grossly inefficient methods of running agriculture and industry. Within a couple of years, North Korea was plunged into a famine that lasted from 1994 – 1998 called ‘The Arduous March’. It’s difficult to know for certain just how many people starved to death during this time, due to the secretive nature of the government and the fact that many death certificates listed differing causes of death, but estimates range from 2 – 3.5 million. In a country with a population the same size as Australia, (25 million), that’s a significant proportion.

This particular co-op farm, growing mainly green vegetables and grains, had been visited a couple of times by Kim Il Sung during the 1980’s. The farmers asked him if they could put up a statue to celebrate the honour of his visits and he refused them, saying that it was unnecessary and that they were already doing important work.

Three years after he died, his son (Kim Jong Il) suggested that now was the time to build it and so here it is. The farm is so proud of it and it depicts actual people who were working there when Kim Il Sung came to visit. This story is all very nice and cosy…

… except if you’ve done your homework and you know that in 1997 famine was laying waste to millions of people in North Korea who were literally starving to death. People were eating grass, bark and anything they could to survive, particularly in the north of the country, far away from the major cities.

Meanwhile, here’s Kim Jong Il, in the middle of all this, telling a FARM to give up land and resources to erect a monument to his father. I don’t know that I could find a clearer story to illustrate just how important these symbols are to a government committed to portraying itself as the saviour of the Korean people. See how Kim Il Song cared about the farmers gathered, (dare I say… “worshipfully”) around him?

In the car park of the farm was this massive stone document, giving what I think are the words of one of the speeches Kim Il Sung gave when he came to the farm. It’s not just images of the Leaders that loom metaphorically and physically over the people, it’s their words as well.

The woman cleaning it wasn’t there purely to make it spick and span for our benefit – any images of the leaders and their words are expected to be kept immaculately clean at all times, as a mark of respect. Still, I’m sure she would’ve preferred to have been finished before a bus-load of tourists pulled up…

In a country with no billboards, video screens and magazine ads about anything other than how fortunate they are to have had such caring, capable and almost god-like leaders, it’s easy to see how huge monuments like these are an integral part of selling the sizzle. The people are told from infancy that their leaders are giants among men and are larger than life – and so how fitting it is for the population to see them literally depicted as such.

I’ll leave you with this photo taken in a station in the Pyongyang metro. Imagine seeing this every morning and evening on your commute…