Advertising North Korea style (4): The Bigger; the Better.

We arrived in North Korea about a week after this went live. This is the LED display on the Ryugyong Hotel, a building which has been unfinished for the last 30-odd years. When we were driving to our hotel we made a special trip to stop the bus and see it. Our two North Korean guides were practically bursting with pride, while Matt, our Aussie guide and a fellow tourist Pierre, who was on his 9th trip to the DPRK, were absolutely agog to see it. Pierre took this picture (@pierredepont on Instagram). The excitement was palpable.

The huge LED display at the top of the hotel shows a huge North Korean flag unfurling and rippling triumphantly in the wind. In this little series, I’ve talked before about how the Kim family uses specific images and symbols to sear their brand onto the hearts and minds of their people. How powerful is the almost magical sight of their flag rising up 105 floors over their showcase city and shining its light over everything?

Remember, this is a population who has absolutely no internet. They’ve never seen photos and film of the bright lights of Times Square or Tokyo or Melbourne. They’ve never seen billboards or logos or commercials. “Just Do It” means nothing to them, while as for the notion of Coke adding life or Red Bull giving you wings? Incomprehensible!

But here is their Dear Leader providing a magical display of dazzling technology that will be the envy of the world. Along with their nuclear program, which is an equally huge source of pride.

The nuclear missiles even made it into the local Cake decorating show, while a guide at the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, the first Leader of North Korea who is worshipped like a god, casually mentioned their successful nuclear program right at the end of her speech extolling the virtues of the Kim family and their leadership. Talk about electrifying! It wasn’t at all what you expect to hear when viewing historical monuments. Yet it’s par for the course here.

Here’s my view of the Pyongyang marathon, viewed from the rear. (I’m not very fit.) This arch is a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Our Korean guide took great pride in telling us that it is 16 feet taller than the original. This particular Arch has the date that Kim Il Sung left Korea, vowing never to return until his country was free from Japanese rule, and the date of his return in 1945, when the Soviets installed him as the head of the government.

That last little piece of information isn’t known here. The legend states that he was a guerrilla fighter who, along with his soldiers, fought bravely to succeeded in defeating the Japanese, practically single-handedly. The arch was built for him by a grateful nation, with the Kim legend sculpted all over it.

It’s solid, huge and not to be argued with. How could it be based on falsehood, when it’s so darned substantial?  

Pyongyang, and indeed the whole of the country as far as we could see, is dotted with ultra-large monuments to the regime and the country. This is the Hammer (industry), sickle (farmers), and the pen (students) that make up the fabric of society. The interior is lined with sculptures showing the heroic people and the fatherly figure of Kim Il Sung looking after them all.

Right from when the grandfather, (Kim Il Sung), took the reins of government, then the father, (Kim Jong Il), and now the son, (Kim Jong Un) – they’ve always been incredibly focussed on linking intense patriotism with the mystique of their family branding. This monument is on the Reunification Road, which our guide described as a Roman Road leading from Pyongyang directly to Seoul in South Korea, built so that when the American Aggressors finally leave the south, the two split nations can finally be whole again. ASAP.

This idea of the two nations being wrongly and shamefully split because of American greed is a pervasive one. The North Koreans have been sold this idea since birth and they are totally convinced that every Korean person longs whole-heartedly for reunification, which the Great Leader is, of course, working night and day to achieve. They get emotional when talking of how their country has been ripped in two and they long to be reunited with family members who are currently out-of-reach on the other side of the border. They pay lip-service to the idea that the government would have to be a committee, because “the people in South Korea are used to their way of running things and we have no wish to change ours”, as our North Korean guide said.

By holding the dream so clearly in front of the people and continually telling them that he is working tirelessly to bring it to fruition, the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong Un and his government is forever seen as a boon and a blessing by the people. The branding of the Kim family and its leadership is continual and constant.

It’s not just the people in the Kim family who are lauded and féted at every opportunity – it’s their philosophies and ideas that are sold to the people as well. This is a country convinced that the world banded together to crush them in the Korean War and it was only by the wisdom and bravery of their leader that they managed to survive. Here is the Juche Tower, built in the centre of Pyongyang, with the red flame always lit up at night so the light of Juche is always shining for the people.

Juche is basically a philosophy built around self-reliance, where you don’t ask for help and you solve all problems yourself. On the face of it, it sounds quite admirable, with images of independence, a strong backbone and a willingness to search for ways to solve things instead of weakly relying on someone else. However, for a leader of a hermit kingdom who definitely doesn’t want his people to be looking outside the borders for fresh ideas and help for any problems, this philosophy is ideal. 

Juche ideals are threaded throughout the culture, with pop songs being sung about it, with books and newspaper articles extolling its virtues and references to it being made in every speech and concert broadcast in the country. A huge proportion of the university courses that are offered to workers are about Juche and the Leaders’ lives and the classes are (I’m told) learned by rote and the students memorise them.

Consumer goods and having the latest gadget is definitely not a ‘thing’ here. Immense pride in their country, their leader and their way of life most certainly is. They are convinced that their standard of living and their way of life is equal to, if not better than, the rest of the world. That’s some pretty efficient advertising right there…

And here is where the narrow focus of the regime on selling themselves comes to the ultimate fruition – here is Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – the most sacred place in all of North Korea, according to our guides. I wrote about it in more detail here, but in brief, this sprawling complex houses the embalmed bodies of the two deceased leaders.

It’s a Very Big Thing for a North Korean to be given permission to come here, with our guide telling us that before she got this job, she’d only been here once, when she turned 16. And this is from one of the privileged people who are able to live in Pyongyang, where her family has presumably succeeded in pleasing the regime for the last 3 or 4 generations. It’s truly a rite of passage for the people to be able to come here.

No cameras. No unseemly behaviour. Tall, serious soldiers everywhere. Passages and halls over a mile long, which are serviced by travellators. The dress code is strict and inflexible. Oliver from our group had to borrow a pair of trousers from another guy, otherwise he wouldn’t have been allowed in. I forgot to pack my black dress shoes and, thankfully, realised in time and raced out to buy a replacement pair in Beijing.

Reports vary about the amount of money spent to turn this place from a residence for Kim Il Sung into his mausoleum, with reports ranging from 100 million dollars to 900 million, if you can believe a sum so astronomical. There are chandeliers, marble walls and floors and ceilings that are at least 15 feet high. Priceless artefacts are everywhere, along with immense statues that we were expected to bow to.

This place is a shrine. If you, as a citizen, are permitted to come here, you are deeply honoured. It’s a triumph of form over substance. It’s where I, as an outsider, could clearly see the successful use of the Kim family’s branding and selling of itself as the saviour of the people.

The people who were queuing up to view the embalmed bodies of the Kims were not fearful or forced to be there, as you’d expect if they were scared to be sent to a re-education camp or something. They were deeply and genuinely reverential, convinced that they are the most fortunate people in the world to have such leaders.

Here in the West, we’re bombarded by advertising from all directions. We have the internet, spouting what are supposed to be new ideas but is, in reality, becoming more of an echo chamber each day. We have commercials on tv, radio, Youtube, Facebook, in the movies, on top of buildings and along our roads and railway lines. We’re awash with it all, to the point where we’re blasé about the whole thing.

However, in North Korea, the advertising is narrow, focussed with a laser-like intensity on one thing. Keeping Kim Jong Un in power. It was truly fascinating to watch the power of advertising techniques being used in such a different way than we’re used to. The item they’re being sold is very different to what we’re used to seeing, but the psychological tricks and methods they use are pretty much just the same as ours. People are people.

One day the regime will fall and the borders will open and the way of life in the DPRK will change forever. Until that happens, the 25 million people who live in the bubble of isolation that is life in North Korea will continue to believe the message that is sold to them. Why wouldn’t they? Apparently, they’re the most fortunate people in the world…

I hope you enjoyed this little window into North Korea. Previous posts in this series:

Advertising  – North Korean style (1): Where the Leaders are Larger than Life.

Advertising – North Korean Style (2): Where a Picture Says a Thousand Words.

Advertising – North Korean Style (3): Teach the Children Well.

I blogged extensively about my trip on my personal blog, Dancing With Frogs. I took over 3,000 photos while I was there, so it took me around 5 months to slowly work my way through them all and blog about each day.

Here is the first day of the North Korean leg of the trip. This post has all the rules and regulations that we needed to be aware of before we set foot in the country. If you’re really interested, you can simply sit down with a cuppa and scroll your way through the posts and experience the trip as I did. It was a fascinating trip and SO MUCH FUN!

Well, being alone and lost in the forest near an army camp and (what I later found out once I was back in Australia) about 20kms from a Detention Camp mightn’t have been fun, but it was certainly interesting. So was our 6-star hotel in the middle of nowhere.

Running a marathon was never on my Bucket List, but I’ve done it now. Well.. sort of…

Going to the DMZ was absolutely not what any of us expected, thanks to the Gift Shop.

Mingling with the locals? Don’t mind if I do. Dancing with them to celebrate a birthday? Why not?  Who wants to eat a meal cooked with petrol? Mmmm… how could you not? It was delicious, and only a little smelly…

Anyway, those links are just a sample, if you’re at all interested. It was a trip to remember!

 

 

 

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Advertising North Korea style (3): Teach the children well.

After the second post in this little series, I had a comment sent in from The Firestarter which said in part:

“Absolutely fascinating subject… I really enjoyed the post! While I get the point that the techniques used on the population are very similar, there is surely a large element of “if you do not comply you will be hurt” and the people there must know this as well. I’m not saying that a large portion of them don’t engage in loving the leaders “willingly” because they’ve been brainwashed, but law of averages suggests that with 25 million there will be a lot of free thinkers in there that have to toe the line anyway or be subject to brutality. This makes it a world apart from consumerism, which although has the “brainwashing” part by using all the psychological tricks they can throw at us, really lets people act out their own free will.”

Of course, that’s true – there are people who are able to see past the spin and, if they’re able, they take steps to evade and/or escape the country altogether. However, I went in expecting there to be more evidence of citizens cynically regarding the constant spin about the regime – but there wasn’t. People genuinely regard themselves and the country as a whole as being utterly blessed in their heritage and their leadership.

A huge part of this is as a result of their education system.

The regime in North Korea inherited an illiterate population when WWII ended. In the years since then, they’ve worked hard to develop the education system throughout the country with great success. Both primary and secondary schooling is compulsory, with many, particularly in the more privileged pockets of the country such as Pyongyang, going on to further education.

But the curriculum is very different from those of other countries. Children, particularly in the country, are taught basic reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, with hours a day spent on memorising long passages from books either written by or about the Great Leaders. They are expected to spout stories and accounts off by heart from these books, while at the other end of their schooling, a lot of the extra tuition people undertake after their work hours are Studies in Juche Philosophy, (Juche was first developed by Kim Il Sung – it means self-reliance and only looking within the DPRK to solve any problems. It’s an entire philosophy too detailed to go into here), and studies from the collected works of Kim Il Sung. This, of course, means that people in the DPRK are woefully under-educated when compared with the rest of the world. Escapees are horrified when they reach South Korea and realise how much studying they have to do to catch up. Re-education is also required, due to the many fanciful tales of the Great Leaders’ exploits and the history of their country which are out and out lies.

This room was one of the first things we were shown when we toured the primary school. They were proud of this natural history room, which the teachers had made themselves “in the manner of our Juche ideals.”

The children are taught this philosophy, which encourages total focus to be on North Korea and its superiority to the rest of the world. They are taught that everywhere beyond its borders are downtrodden, poor and we’re all envious of the way the DPRK runs the country and looks after the interests of its people. The fact that the teachers built this room themselves, with no outside help or input, was seen as a source of much pride.

This was the first classroom we went it – a computer class. I was the second person in the room and as I walked in and moved along the back, I couldn’t help but notice the IT guy frantically working to connect the big screen.

I took this shot to show the IT guys back home at school. They couldn’t believe it! I suppose this is more Juche ideals at work.

We were shown an English class, a dance class, a singing class and a sports class. It was all designed to show us how modern and cosmopolitan their curriculum was, how talented and bright their children were and how North Korea is thriving, judging by these cherubs.

While we were watching these gorgeous little girls do their dance class for us, trying their little hearts out, Wally slipped away. He took a wander all by himself around the halls with his trusty camera around his neck. The next photo is mine, but all of the following photos of the art in the halls of the primary school are from him.

This was at the top of the stairs on the second floor. It gave me quite a turn to see this as we rounded the stairway and came up the second flight. I work at a secondary school and last year we had a political photographer put up huge blown-up photos of refugees and people in bomb shelters in the Middle East around the campus. Our principal purposefully selected photos that wouldn’t be too confronting to the sensibilities of our students. No guns, wounds, bodies etc. Too scary for our 12 – 18 year-olds.

Yet this image is positioned at the head of the stairs where these 5 – 11 year-olds would see it every day. Things like this inevitably leave a mark.

The narrative that the North Korean people have been told for the last 60 years is that for 150 years the Japanese ruled their country and the Koreans were treated worse than animals. (Which, to be fair, has quite a bit of truth to it.) Then, during WWII, the brave and glorious Kim Il Sung and his soldiers fought the Japanese and drove them away from Korea and finally – the Koreans were FREE! (In actual fact, the Russians were the ones to drive the Japanese out – Kim Il Sung didn’t have his own army of guerillas. He was in the Russian army as a minor officer. The Russians thought he’d be a good man to run the country.)

Then the evil American Aggressors divided the Korean peninsula down the middle and stole half of it. They would have taken it all but the wisdom and bravery of General Kim Il Sung prevented that from happening and so the North Korean people are the only Koreans who are free.

In 1950 the American Aggressors and the South Korean puppets invaded North Korea without warning. (Actually, the opposite happened.) General Kim Il Sung mobilised his country’s army and they fought the Americans all the way down to the bottom of the peninsula – near;y driving them into the sea. The cowardly Americans called up 17 satellite countries to help them fight and between the might of all these countries, the DPRK fighting on all on its own was driven back. (This was an account which is clearly referring to when the UN stepped in to help with the war. On our tour of the War Museum in Pyongyang, our guide recited the list of countries 3 times. Australia was third each time. Awkward…)

The country of North Korea was nearly bombed out of existence by the US. (True. A third of their population was killed in the Korean War. That’s horrific by any standards. ) So now the DPRK must stand alone, vigilant to protect its borders, knowing that the American Aggressors and the Japanese Imperialists would like nothing better than to sweep in and retake their glorious country.

It’s a wonderful mixture of paranoia, fiction and myth-telling, based on truths, half-truths and complete lies. This means that the population is very easy to handle. Sell them this story constantly, coupled with the constant stories about how fortunate they are that the Kim family is prepared to sacrifice their own lives to work for the good of the people for the first time in 200 years, and you’ll have just about everybody believing in you. Take away the internet and close the borders and there are very few people left to argue.

Once that’s done, surround children like this little girl with constant lessons and images like the following ones:

Judging by the date on the bottom left of this ‘artwork’, this is showing the kids how the evil American and South Korean puppets invaded their beloved country.

Graphic image. Look at how resolute she appears.

See how young they are?

This looks like Holocaust material, doesn’t it? With roughly one-third of their population bombed out of existence by the UN in the Korean War, it would be easy to play on their fears of such a thing happening again. These children would have Grandparents and Great-Grandparents who would remember the war. But failing that, every family would have stories that were handed down.

These children were singing shrill songs that sounded like marching songs. Songs about love and the individual desires for fulfilment are not sung in North Korea. Instead, the popular songs are all about the struggle for Reunification, the adoration they have for Kim Jong Un and how by pulling together they will bring the DPRK back to its rightful place as the country that the rest of the world looks up to.

See the long nose on the priest? This picture is having a go at both organised religion and Americans.

Meanwhile, the children smile sweetly and perform for the tourists. I was wondering what went through their minds when the embodiment of all they’ve been taught to fear rolls up in their school in a group and smiles at them. It must feel very strange.

The following pages are taken from a fascinating book called “This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood” by Hyok Kang. The Maths questions he’s talking about are the very same sort of problems that these children in the photographs would be learning. They are all phrased like this.

Kang goes on to write that “Our schoolbooks would spend page after page glorifying the ‘victory’ of the DPRK against Japan in 1945 and against the United States and the Southern puppets in 1954. (In fact, North Korea was invaded by Russian troops and was not liberated by the armies of Kim Il Sung. As for the Korean War, (1950 – 3) it did not conclude with a victory of the North over the South, because the demarcation line was left unchanged.) And just as the definitions in our dictionaries were politicised, we were trained to speak in ready-made phrases. We didn’t say ‘the Americans’ but ‘the American imperialists’ or ‘the American bastards’ or even the ‘yangkubegi‘ (western long-noses.)”

When you train people to think and speak in sound-bites, you’re controlling how they think. But then again, we all know that Coke adds life, a Diamond is Forever and that we should Just Do It. And when we Have a Break, we should have a Kit-Kat. And of course, when all else fails, For Everything Else, There’s Mastercard.

(Please excuse the mug! This shot was taken at my desk after we got back.)

This book is a prime example of the books that children and young people are made to read. The language is flowery and over-the-top, with Kim Jong Il portrayed as a man who is vastly superior to anyone else. Even at 6 years of age, he was instructing adults in anything from political science to agriculture. Truly a leader to admire!

This is the first of three pages of the table of contents. Here’s the opening page:

The children of North Korea have textbooks written exactly like this. Their minds are sponges and this is what they grow up absorbing. The regime’s message falls on fertile ground.

Incidentally, the whole book was around 200 pages filled with over-the-top language such as this. I ploughed through it and finished it, but it was a hard read. From what I’ve read and researched after I came back, everything written to or about the Leaders must be phrased in this effusive over-exaggerated way. It must be exhausting.

But still, kids are kids. Oliver, one of the tallest and kindest men I’ve ever met, brought heaps of toys and pencils and textas from Germany. He was very popular with the children once they realised that he was giving away free things. Kids were walking away clutching small trinkets, eyes round with wonder.

Maybe little things like this will make some of the kids realise that not all they’re told and sold about Westerners is true…

Or maybe not. The education system is a solid base that the government has grabbed to ensure that they deliver their message to the population when the people are too young and unsophisticated to know fact from fiction. And when everyone around you is immersed in the same bubble of stories, fear and lies, it must be very hard to step back and think critically about what is real and what is not.

Going back to the comment I quoted at the start of this post by  ‘The Firestarter’, I’ll close with another quote from the book ‘This is Paradise!’ by Hyok Kang, about when his parents decided to try and escape into China and were trying to get him to agree to come with them. He was 18 years old at this time.

“I told him I would rather be a beggar in North Korea than follow him to China. I replied in set phrases that I had learned at school, along the lines of, ‘Let us safeguard socialism’, or, ‘I will fight to the death to protect socialism and the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung!’ …I had stopped going to school. It was my decision, but I should also point out that, given my state of mind, and since my father was worried that I would report him to my classmates, he himself had forbidden me to go… [My mother also] tried to persuade me to follow them. … She added that we would spend a year in China, no more, and that we would earn money and come back to North Korea. Reluctantly, I finally agreed.”

This book was written in 2007. It’s pretty safe to say that he has never elected to go back!

I’ve linked all of this talk on education in with advertising, which in a fast-and-loose sort of way it is. The regime has been selling the stories about itself to the children for over 60 years. Here in the West we have tv ads and product placement bombarding our kids and us from our earliest years. In a strange sort of way, it’s similar to what the kids in the DPRK are also bombarded with. It’s just that their ‘products’ are far more focused and powerful than ours…

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.

 

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…