Gallery: the art of the propaganda poster in North Korea
Any visitor to North Korea can’t fail to be struck by the absence of what we take for granted both at home and in most countries we visit: advertising. Only state-produced goods are available, so with no competition for customers, there is no need to advertise. But that doesn’t mean that there no eye-catching posters clamouring for our attention in the streets.
However, what is being ‘advertised’ here is the regime and all it stands for. This is a country where very few have access to the internet, and where the press and media are totally controlled by government. The posters help to reinforce the messages that the regime wishes to distribute, on a daily basis. They can be found on road corners in even the smallest villages, and on the streets of every town and city. They are even displayed in the fields of the state and collective farms. People pass them on their way to the shops, to work and to school.
Themes include the country’s military might; advances in agriculture and science; exhortations to work hard to reach targets; promotion of sporting achievements; celebrations of national culture. In the past many posters also carried anti-US messages; but in the last few years the tone has moderated and most of these have been replaced.
The style is distinctive. Many posters are still hand-painted and almost all are produced at the Mansudae Art Studio, a state-run facility. The government sets the theme, such as increasing rice production, and several different artists paint posters. One or two of these are chosen to be printed in their thousands for distribution all over the country.
Slogans are usually short and to the point. Literacy rates are high here so there is little fear that people won’t be able to read and understand the message. But the simplistic images clearly reinforce the words of the slogan, just in case. Colours tend to be garish, and from a limited palette. Most are symbolic, chosen to resonate with the viewer. Red is the colour of socialism of course; it suggests aggression but also at times passion. Blue means peace and harmony; it can also symbolise integrity so is often used on educational posters. Gold and yellow stand for prosperity and the glory of the regime and its successes. Black represents darkness and evil, so in the past was often used in anti-American and anti-Japanese posters.
Even if, like me, you don’t speak Korean, it’s not too difficult to work out the gist of the message in my examples below, shared for this week’s Photographing Public Art Challenge.
This is the same design as the poster shown in my featured photo, and both photos were shot in Pyongyang, the capital. I don’t read Korean but the message is clear. It is celebrating progress and modernisation – in transport and in architecture. The man is exhorting the people to push harder to speed up further progress; I’m sure the poster’s positioning here in front of a construction site isn’t coincidental.
The same design again but this time in Chongjin, an industrial city in the north east of the country, far less developed and modernised than the capital. The poster is older and faded; I suspect it would not have been allowed to get into this condition in Pyongyang, the country’s ‘show city’. There is a hint of irony here for the outside observer, as progress in this part of the country has been far slower than in the capital. However, change is coming even to Chongjin, as my earlier post about the city describes.
This poster is on one of the main thoroughfares in Pyongyang, Sungri Street. Flaming torches are, like flags, a popular choice of motif to encourage the people to devote all their energies towards progress. The group of people include workers in agriculture and construction, as well as the military and what seems to be a businessman. They reflect the three branches of the Workers’ Party – industrial workers, farmers and intellectuals (the military are a class apart).
A lady cycles past the same poster in Chongjin. During our visit I often observed such scenes and wondered if the people ever really ‘saw’ the posters. Do they look at and absorb the messages therein? Or are they so familiar as to be almost invisible, part of the background to a life that has far more important cares such as getting food on the table and avoiding the scrutiny of neighbours? Certainly I never spotted anyone paying a poster much attention.
Here’s the same torch but a different design, on a huge poster on the main street through Chongjin. Again progress is the theme, with an emphasis on transport. The striking modern building on the right isn’t of course in Chongjin but hundreds of miles away in the capital. It’s the feature building of Pyongyang’s showcase development, Mirae Scientists Street.
Construction workers feature heavily in these posters nowadays, as the emphasis shifts away from the previous anti-US military power struggle. Kim Jong Un is keen to portray North Korea as a modern twenty first century nation with an infrastructure to match, and the people must play their part. But as it has always done, the regime places a strong emphasis on speed – speed of production, speed of construction. This worker is urging people forwards on their quest to build this modern country.
The inclusion of the date on this poster in a village in the south east of the country suggests that it relates to targets set for that year. The regime has set a series of five-year economic plans during its time in power, the first set out by Kim Il Sung in 1957. According to a recent Reuters’ article, the emphasis of the current one is on ‘increased iron and steel production and investment, as well as a push for better infrastructure, transportation, construction and commerce’.
Another worker with a roll of plans in his hand, back in Chongjin. The noticeable image here is of a horse, top right. This is Chollima, the ‘thousand li horse’, a symbol of high-speed progress in the country. This is one of the most popular motifs on these propaganda posters.
This unusual round poster in Pyongyang is all about Chollima. The three flying horses are being ridden by a construction worker, an intellectual and a farmer, representing the three branches of the Workers’ Party. Below we have a ship, a train, a lorry, a tractor and a digger – road construction is another important part of the five year plan to modernise.
A digression – Chollima and Mallima
The Koreans have a term for their speedy construction projects; they describe them as being done at ‘Chollima Speed’ or in recent years, ‘Mallima Speed’. Chollima was a mythical flying horse, similar to Pegasus in Greek mythology. The name Chollima translates as a ‘thousand li horse’, with a ‘li’ being a traditional unit of east Asian measurement, equating to 393 metres. Accordingly, Chollima could gallop, or fly, almost 400 kilometres in a single day.
At the end of the Second World War the new nation of North Korea was in a desperate state. Cities had been ruined by the bombing and industry destroyed. The new leader, Kim Il Sung, urgently needed to lift the morale of the people. In 1956 he set out his first Five Year Plan, an ambitious strategy designed to drastically improve the economy. Wanting to motivate the people to devote maximum energy to the fulfilment of his plans he coined the idea of the Chollima Movement. Through this he urged the entire nation to work harder to smash productivity targets, increase output and achieve the unachievable, just like the mythical Chollima horse.
It worked – it is estimate that the North Korean GNP nearly doubled between 1956 and 1960, completing the Five Year Plan two years early. As the Bradt guidebook to the country explains, ‘people gave their very all to exceed output, outdo their peers and smash targets by hundreds of percent to try and become ‘Chollima riders’, hero labourers that were glorified across the nation – a rare example in the nation’s history where the people, not their leaders, were celebrated for their tireless efforts.’
Of course the pace could not be maintained and productivity dipped again in future decades, but in 2012 a new movement was announced, the Mallima Movement. Mallima means ‘ten thousand li horse’, that is, ten times faster than its predecessor from the 1950s. Like the Chollima Movement the aim was to spur on the enthusiasm and output of the nation and its workers. But the results were less than spectacular. From Bradt again: ‘while almost any North Korean would publicly state that he or she would do anything for their leader, increasing one’s already overstretched output ten, nay one hundred fold, is impossible, even for the most sedulous of citizens’
The Chollima Movement is still recognised, however, as a key element of the country’s post-war recovery and the mythical horse tops a dramatic monument just north of the statues of the great Leaders on Mansu Hill, as well as appearing on propaganda posters everywhere, urging the people on to ever greater achievements.
Back to the posters
The posters aren’t always on their own; often they are in groups of three. Here (by a housing block in Pyongyang) we have three different workers. Two of them, with the rolled up plans, we have seen before, but the one on the right is new. No doubt he is using the megaphone to get across the message that everyone must work hard to achieve the targets of the five year plan.
Another set of three, this time in a small town in the south east of the country. This time the theme is more rural. On the left we have a farm worker harvesting rice (I think). On the right the man is holding a small tree and no doubt exhorting citizens to do their bit to reach the five year plan’s target for tree planting. In the centre we have the usual group of workers plus ‘intellectual’ or businessman waving the red flag.
Incidentally, like many of my photos in this post, this was taken from our tour bus as we drove through the town. You can see the bus reflected in the small roadside mirror!
While we’re on the subject of rural themes, the posters aren’t confined to built-up areas. I took the two photos above on a visit to a state apple farm, No doubt they carry similar messages of encouragement to the workers to do their bit to grow and harvest more and more apples to feed the population.
This poster is in a rural area too but carries a rather different message. It seems a bit faded so may be older than some of the others, and is definitely more militaristic. I photographed it in the south east of the country near the city of Wonsan.
The poster above was at our seaside hotel not far from Hamhung on the east coast. The background depicts a famous monument just south of Pyongyang. The Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification straddles the Reunification Highway that leads south to the border. It depicts two women in the north and south wearing traditional Korean dresses, holding between them a sphere with a map of a unified Korea. This was one of the rare occasions when I had the chance to ask one of our guides to translate the slogan. I don’t remember his exact words but the gist was about striving for a single Korea with a united people.
These two posters carry the same message about reunification. This is the only photo we were permitted to take in the area just on the edge of the DMZ or Demilitarised Zone, while waiting for all the paperwork surrounding our visit to the border to be completed. The fact that we were not only allowed but encouraged to take this photo speaks volumes about the importance of the reunification message for the DPRK regime.
In complete contrast to the military image near Wonsan, and the motivational workers, is this poster in (relatively) affluent Pyongyang. A mother and happy child are surrounded by all the wonderful products of the nation that make their lives good: fruit and vegetables, various groceries, footwear and clothing. The message is clear – life is good in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Also in Pyongyang is this double-sided poster celebrating the country’s scientific advances. By the way, the lady taking a photograph bottom left of my shot isn’t a local, as you may have guessed, but a tourist – one of those in my small group.
Finally, something different again – a train speeding into the future. On the left we have some of the most striking buildings in Pyongyang, including the same feature building from Mirae Scientists Street which is designed to look like an atom. On the right is a dam – probably the West Sea Barrage of which the North Koreans are inordinately proud.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of some propaganda posters in North Korea. Studying these is a great way to learn a little bit about this enigmatic country. This is public art with a message!
I visited North Korea in 2019
Besides the message itself in each image, which is paramount I’m sure, the very stylized depiction of people seems to be required and similar in political poster of Russia, China, North Vietnam, from what I’ve seen. So interesting.
Yes, there’s a very distinct Communist style of art in both paintings and statues – and in architecture too. I have a weird fondness for it!!
One can only imagine living in a country with no access to world news, only learning what the state wants you to know. It must have been an absolutely fascinating trip and an insight into a different world.
Thanks – yes, it was totally fascinating to be absorbed in that world for just a few weeks. I learned so much!
I love (just about) every one of these images. Just so fascinating in every regard and bursting with colour and positivity. Which is the irony I guess. Propaganda prints have long bewitched me and indeed I’ve been lucky enough to visit The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center, as well as Old Propaganda Posters & Paintings in Hanoi. But to see these spread across the city in the world’s most sealed off country must have been something else.
Oh, those exhibitions must have been really worth seeing, I would be fascinated by them! We didn’t have much time in Hanoi, otherwise that would have been on my list for sure 🙂 And you’re right to pick up on the irony of the positive messaging, as this is at heart a country that is struggling (and more so since Covid, I am sure).
Sarah, I found it interesting that in almost all of the posters the expressions were fierce and demanding with at least one arm up in defiance or dominance. The latter posters show scenes that are easier to identify with – people at ease concentrating on the task at hand – as in the doctor, and the mother and child, with all hands down at their sides. These photos made me comfortable, whereas the other posters raised my level of discomfort. I wonder if they have the same effect on the population. Fabulous post for PPAC, Sarah. Thanks for joining in.
There’s been a definite shift in tome in these posters in recent years Marsha. Since the (ultimately unproductive) talks between Trump and Kim Jong Un, the anti-US ones have been torn down and the number of military ones greatly reduced. At the same time the regime has been putting increasing emphasis on modernisation through technology and education, not just the big construction projects that were beloved of the previous Kims.
I enjoyed reading your thoughtful comments on these North Korean posters.
Thanks Don, I appreciate you stopping by 🙂
Definitely interesting, Sarah. I would have expected this had I thought much about it but it’s interesting to see examples. They do remind me of WWII signs exhorting people to do certain things, work hard, give up for the war effort, etc. But those went away after the war. I suppose in some way N. Korea is always fighting a war for the minds if not the hearts of its people.
Thanks Janet – I know what you mean about the similarities with our WWII posters. You’re right, there’s a real sense in N Korea that they are at war, because technically they are. The war between North and South was never properly ended, they merely signed an armistice agreement. As N Korea sees it, the country was unconstitutionally divided by foreign powers, at the instigation of the US, and they won’t be happy until it is reunified as a single Korea. These days they try to achieve that through occasional and largely unproductive talks with the South, rather than fighting – thankfully.
Interesting post & analysis Sarah. Coming from where we are, it’s hard to see how this style of signage could have any impact. And yet there’s lots of similarity to the posters of WWII. I think the only thing that’s different is that the rest of the world has evolved with technology & mass commuications.
Thanks Sandy 🙂 It’s not so much a lack of technology (most of the better off younger people of Pyongyang certainly have mobile phones) but a lack of communication beyond their borders. There’s a naivety about the people because of their very limited exposure to outside ideas that makes them more susceptible to these quite simplistic propaganda messages – they have no reason not to believe them. I would argue though that we are also surrounded by propaganda, but to have any impact it has to be rather more sophisticated to overcome our learned tendency to be sceptical.
we don’t call it propaganda … it’s mass marketing and advertising , now entering the realm of individualized marketing and influence peddling. Informed scepticsim is just as hard.
Sarah, what marvelous photos for public art. 😀 😀 Thanks so much for playing along.
Thank you Cee for the lovely comment, and for co-hosting such an interesting challenge 🙂
Fascinating stuff. These posters are very ‘Soviet’ in feel, aren’t they? And such a contrast with South Korea, where so much of the advertising was from the familiar multi-nationals (McDonald’s anybody?) but with added hangul.
Yes, very Soviet (although they would probably prefer to think otherwise!) I did actually see one advert on the streets of Pyongyang, a poster advertising new cars. But since these are state-made and only the one brand is available, our guide told me the ad was really just an announcement that new cars were available rather than promotion of one brand over another as we would see here.
A Trabant by any other name ….
Oh, the Places We See
What a fascinating post! So glad you shared the vivid images but also the descriptions of what the posters symbolize and the prominent spots they hold on the landscape of these cities. I find it all quite interesting, and I really had no idea about all of this until your post came today. Thanks!
Thank you, I’m really happy you found this interesting 🙂 These posters tell us so much about North Korea!
By the way, I’m looking forward to you hosting LAC this weekend – sounds like you have an interesting challenge in mind!
Oh, the Places We See
Hope you’ll join in. You always have great photos and stories to share.
Oh I will – that theme is perfect for me!