The thing about North Korean propaganda is that it’s fucking everywhere. And not just everywhere, the way our own western propaganda is everywhere (and simultaneously nowhere), but in your face, stripped of subtlety, demanding to be seen, to be read, and, if it can’t actually be obeyed, then at least to be acknowledged, even admired. That’s what makes the DPRK’s unique form of agitprop — with its big, blocky Hangul, its round, smiling faces, its punch-in-the-face juxtaposition of Communist reds and whites with Korean greens and blues, like a paint-by-numbers kit completed by the overtalented, underused hands at Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang — so god damn fascinating. The kitsch, which belies the creepiness lurking in all of these posters, surely classifies these posters as a crude form of pop art. The day they trade at some stuffy auction at Sotheby’s will be a poetic day indeed. I hope to be there, paddle in hand.
Of course, it’s easy as westerners to laugh at this stuff as one of the strange charms of North Korea. And it is. But translate some of these posters, and stop to think about the cumulative effect of a government shoving its opinion down your throat at every turn, and the entire phenomenon becomes simultaneously more disturbing and more amusing. Early-morning commuters are greeted by salutations like “Let’s do it in the revolutionary way!” which is definitely one way to start your day. (Beats Starbucks.) ____ Imagine if Union Square were plastered with murals screaming “Obamacare is the lifeblood of our national wellness!” next to a picture of a grinning, powerful Barack Obama with perfect teeth, and you can begin to appreciate how these posters play in NoKo. (And no sooner than I wrote that sentence did the iconic image of President Obama come to mind ____). If Obamacare is a little too specific and/or sympathetic for your tastes, as it very well might be since the extent of your propaganda was probably the commercials for Covered California, then substitute that phrase with “Children are the backbone of our democratic revolution!” and maybe you’ll get a better picture.
(By the way, if that last one gave you the creeps a bit more, it’s because it sounds awfully close to some of the things we do say in the States — the children are our future, do it for the children, etc. We’re not so big on throwing around words like “revolution” these days, but that’s exactly what we called the rebellion that led to our experiment in democracy in 1776. That we no longer use the term “revolution” doesn’t mean we weren’t a tribe of firebrands with designs on overthrowing our imperialist occupiers. One of the mindfucks of studying another country’s propaganda is how much light it sheds on our own — you can’t look at a monument or read a newspaper the same way after North Korea, and that is one of its greatest gifts.)
The irony, of course, is that overexposure to anything diminishes its conscious effect, and that is most true of propaganda. At the same time, it also enhances its subconscious effect, which is exactly the point, and far more worrisome. But let’s just appreciate for a moment that the more a system tries to shout its ideals at you, the less, frankly, you notice, and the less you notice, the less you’ll tend to care. More importantly, though, the loudest forms of propaganda tend to reveal the deepest insecurity. Why insist on the self-evident? Why defend the obvious? The loud guy at the meeting is often the most insecure. The one pounding his fists on the table has the least to say. And yet confidence and stability rarely go hand in hand. Silence is the most noble and confident forms of self-expression, but it doesn’t exactly make for good dictatorships. That’s why Buddhists don’t run countries.
Anyway, the fact that we can enjoy these posters as art and as mind control says a lot about the medium and the message (and the human heart, but that’s a whole other story). I stumbled across this street in Samjiyon County, not far from Mt. Paekdu, walking through a street that was until recently closed to foreign tourists. Over the last few years it’s been hard to find parts of North Korea that haven’t seen many white faces (in 2011 I was gawked at in Pyongyang; now I’m mostly ignored). The same street that turns into a ski town in winter is also home to Propaganda Row (my name), one of the coolest corners I’ve found in old NoKo. Not exactly the right outfit for a propaganda photo bomb, but at least my Adidas stripes match the color palate.