Made in North Korea: Graphics from Everyday Life in the DPRK ~ By Nicholas Bonner
(Phaidon Press, New York City, 2017, ISBN #978-0-7148-7350)
Review by Bill Drucker (Spring 2020 issue)
Graphic pop culture from North Korea? Yes. Profusely illustrated through examples of author Nicholas Bonner’s collection of North Korean postcards, Air Koryo tickets, comics, candy wrappers, gift wrap, student notebooks, and other graphical paraphernalia, this book provides an insightful look into North Korean popular and commercial images. The examples also show that the socialist nation does not operate in a vacuum or neglect the masses. Many of the graphics also show high artistic qualities.
Most of the collected illustrations are for products and services with labeling in both Korean and English words. North Korea must have had expectations that English-speaking tourists would visit. Unfortunately, North Korean politics put an end to any hopes of a large influx of visitors and cash. The products intended for tourism were printed in Korean and English, Korean and Russian, Korean and French, and Korean and Chinese. They mostly languished in warehouses. Lucky for Bonner, the abundant stock of unsold tourist paraphernalia was easy to find.
There are eight thematic chapters that are re-enforced by prints of colorful and quality artwork. The heavy-handed influence of state propaganda permeates many of the graphics. Bonner points out that an emphasis on simplicity, though not simple, in designs and motifs follow the state’s requirements: Practicality, purity, and beauty.
In principle, North Korean ideology rejects foreign influence, and emphasizes originality in the design of even common items, such as candy wrappers, gift wrap, stationary, and food labels. While North Korea has its unique internally-developed style of art and graphics, there is still no denying many influences; Confucian, Buddhist, Christian, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and even American.
Another popular printed medium, North Korean comics, tell stories with real comic-book humor while exuding socialist ideals and propaganda. One comic shows a provocative female spy, as sexy as the North Korean censors allow. She is in heels, shows leg, and is pretty and smart; a North Korean Lois Lane.
In principle, North Korea enforces the mandates of proletarianism and patriotism. Product branding is not the main focus, though there are several brands of common consumer products, such as beer and cigarettes. It is interesting to look at Western and North Korean cultures, and compare what the marketing is intended to do. Western marketing and commercialism aims at emotion rather than reason. The message is often that the product will improve your life. North Korean graphics, infused with propaganda, focuses on who the customer is and where the customer is. With deliberate Communist and Socialist messages, North Korean marketing uses a deliberate didactic quality on all labels.
In the oddly-named first chapter, Let’s Wear Our Hair in the Socialist Style, the reader discovers that the chapter label is not at all facetious. In 2004, North Korean state TV broadcasted a five-part series called, “Let’s trim our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle.” Control and conformity ruled the populace. As with many characteristics of the culture at that time, it was important that people’s appearance should be functional and utilitarian. The labels of the time were designed to be instructional, as opposed to persuasive.
When North Korea was planning for the export of its goods, labeling took the competitive marketing approach, which is in evidence in the cigarette and beer labels of that period. The graphics and photos glorify the homeland, its leaders, and the people. The postcards of the Pyongyang Metro and the city’s monuments show the pristine images of the structures and the perfectly orchestrated and posed people.
The theme of being the best gets some attention in the chapter Our Country is Best. This core propaganda, starting in kindergarten, and shown in huge posters all over the city and countryside, enforce the North Korean loyalty and pride. Certain iconic images are repeated or made larger than life. The Kim leader images are everywhere, including in the schools and homes. The legendary Chollima winged horse is symbolic of the North Korean people always racing forward. The winged horse also appears in posters and other printed objects for the North Korean Koryo Airline.
With little or no marketing competition, North Korean products can boast “it is the best” because it is reasoned, it is made in the best country.
There is a full-tilt type of propaganda that asserts the nature of North Korea as a paradise for its people. The state enforces the high quality of life the regime offers to its people, including a six-day work week, education for all children, holiday resorts, sports facilities, and mass entertainment.
The chapter Yankees are Wolves in Human Shape details how the state uses propaganda to vilify its enemies. In a 1975 guidebook, there is heavy-handed propaganda about the state’s enemies and explicit political views. Bonner notes the cultural value of the guide book (which includes many Korean phrases to learn) as another insightful window into the North Korean psyche. It is oddly humorous that phrases to learn in the book are about socialist and homeland ideology rather than “where is the bathroom?” or “how much is the Metro ride.” Instead, phrases include “where are the Leader Kim publications?” and “The U.S. Army must leave South Korea.”
Images of North Korean soldiers, male and female, are beautiful, patriotic and heroic. Banners wave, machines guns blast, colors are bold and bright. The style of the art is closer to the era of World War II and the Korean War, rather than adapting to a contemporary tone.
Strongly emphasized is the theme of “single-hearted” unity. It is a slogan intended to rally the people to be strong and thwart all enemies. There is pride that North Korea rose like the phoenix from ashes in the aftermath of the Korean War. Children are automatically enlisted into Youth Leagues, then segue into the military, and for the capable and connected, into the Worker’s Party. Each phase of life is controlled by the state. People are taught to embrace the idea of juche or self-reliance, to achieve harmony and peace.
Foreign language learning is part of the national school curriculum, because according to Karl Marx, “foreign language is a weapon for the life and struggle.” Chinese, Russian, Japanese, and English are all taught. Tourism has had the most impact on North Korean labeling and artwork, though the influx of foreign tourist and dollars may not seem to merit all the graphic production. Because there is no competition, the brochures, tickets, luggage tags, and many other items looked dated and simply get reprinted rather than updated and revised.
There is also a nod to North Korea’s famous gymnastics in the graphic arts of the country. North Korea produces spectacular mass entertainment events and mass games. Gymnastics is at the center of these spectacles. Children are trained as gymnasts from primary and middle schools. Professional singers, musicians, college students and members of the armed forces also participate in the highly orchestrated and sophisticated events that can go on for days, and 20,000 students can make up an event’s backdrop. The last mass games were in 2013. Since then, no such large scale event has been seen.
Author Nicholas Bonner has been dealing with North Korean tourism, and consequently the country’s politics and pop culture for years. Originally from Manchester, England, Bonner became interested in North Korea and its idea after a study trip to northern China in 1993. Subsequent visits changed his career path and made Bonner a DPRK specialist. A second book, Printed in North Korea (2019) examines North Korea’s serious print art, which also shows the ideas of North Korea through its professional prints.