Most of us rank its propaganda high on what we identify with North Korea.
We saw and heard plenty while we were there, to the exclusion of nearly all other forms of public expression. For background, see the Wikipedia page or this essay. They give more background and pictures than I could, so I’ll stick with my observations.
Today I want to comment at a high level on North Korea propaganda as I saw it, then to return to it from other perspectives.
Americans typically think North Korean propaganda as comical. The posters so over-the-top you can’t imagine anyone taking them seriously. Television shows hardly differ. I understand television sets and radios come fixed to one station, with severe penalties for breaking the seal and enabling changing the station. The music we heard was always rousing and triumphant — why don’t the people who control this stuff allow the expression of other emotions? Who could possibly believe the news stories?
I saw only one piece of public art not overtly nationalistic: a sculpture of a musical symbol — a treble clef in a roadside park (sorry, didn’t get a picture). Every other form of public expression — sculpture, art, poster, billboard, broadcast music, posted newspapers, etc — nearly every single one seemed propagandistic, at least that I noticed.
I couldn’t gauge how North Koreans viewed the propaganda themselves. Did they tune it out? Did they like it? Were they ashamed by it? I couldn’t tell. The main thing I noticed was that people didn’t react overtly to every piece of it. I suspect they tuned them out.
We, on the other hand, reveled in it. The foreign language bookstore had piles of posters of triumphant North Korean armies defying and defeating U.S. forces. They were amazing. I couldn’t figure out if they realized how much the reasons we loved them differed from the reasons they made them. To us they were ironic. The same store in the East Village would make a lot of money.
This difference between their non-reactions and our reactions — often disbelief, humor, and amazement — led me to conclude they saw it as part of their environments, like fish in water, mostly tuning it out, but it still pervading their worlds.
That difference also led me to wonder what pervaded my world without my realizing it, a theme I’ll explore in the next few posts.
Here is a partial list of places we saw nationalistic propaganda
- virtually all their public sculpture and visual art
- the military where not necessary
- references to the U.S. and Japanese as imperialist
- music and news blared from loudspeakers in central squares to farms and cities
- intercoms in every home that sound off at the same time
- giant public squares
- books and literature
- entryways to buildings had large statues of the Kims
- museums invariably related their content to the Kims
- the histories the guides and videos told us of their sites
- bookstores always included books “by” the Kims
This list is by no means conclusive and it only covers what we saw, saying nothing of what we didn’t see.
One guide told us they got a lot of news from the outside world because twice a week they translated the BBC into Korean. As far as I could tell he thought they provided the full stories.