North Korea 2008 – Part 2: Place Advertisement Here
It is not until you encounter a society without adverts that you realise how ubiquitous they truly are elsewhere. As Naomi Klein detailed in student favourite No Logo, western society is awash with adverts. Even activities like festivals and schooling are adverts. Everything is marketed, and everyone is marketing.
In North Korea, matters are a little different, as there is only one corporation in the game: the state. Billboards do not have any purpose outside instructing people or advocating religious worship of the leaders. To say this is refreshing would be the wrong word – authoritarian state propaganda cannot be described thus – but it is novel. Moreover, being an illiterate passerby, the average tourist is unlikely to be swayed and can instead draw breath. There is no need to buy. There is no need to own. There are no celebrities bar the Kims, and no great respect for them.
For a few days, it feels good to be disconnected. Of course one knows that the state is still selling, and its product is more sinister than Coca-Cola; yet the displays are large and blunt rather than ubiquitous, and without understanding Korean their message is mostly lost. In short, the first response to propaganda in Pyongyang is intellectual rather than emotional. Oh, look at this curious country – it really does have pictures and statues of the Kims.
However, even inside ten days there are the first feelings of shame. A painting of Kim Jong-Il and smiling children, all holding weapons. Those portrait photographs on private walls, where family pictures should be. It begins to feel off. The pleasure of not being a consumer constantly fed the bile of advertisers is fresh, but there is a counterweight that despotic institutions cannot resist. It is the nausea of forced feeding. The monarchy on British stamps; the picture of the queen in a Bangkok roundabout; the thousands of China flags put around Lhasa: eventually it reaches a point at which a sane person just wants them to stop, in no uncertain terms. A gold plated statue of Kim Il-Sung is more sickness than glory.
When I first visited China, North Korea’s neighbour, I found the good news interesting until the formula became clear. Every half hour bulletin on CCTV started with ten minutes of CCP politicians shaking hands to show leadership; then ten minutes of the rest of the world burning; and finally ten minutes in which peasants and workers proclaimed their lives had improved. The news then became not merely dubious, but also unwatchable. The propaganda in Korea provoked the same arc: knowledge that this is ill is originally coupled with curiosity, until finally an emotional – not only intellectual – dislike begins to form.
Having no advertising is a great place for North Korea to be. If only it removed all efforts to deify its leaders – and generally stopped being a dictatorship with a penchant for human rights abuses – it would have very pleasant streets indeed.
To have and to have not
Other absences in North Korea also proved useful in eliciting compare-and-contrast thinking. For instance, whilst every nation has money stored somewhere – and the line of Mercedes outside Pyongyang airport made no secret of who had it here – this is a country not rich enough to have a thousand vehicles upon every road. Consequently the large boulevards of the capital are mostly traffic free, as are the highways leading from one urban area to the next. Again, the presence of nothing is a strong tool for realising how crowded our otheer pictures have become.
One does need to take these experiences of North Korea with a pinch of salt, including the traffic density. Videos of Pyongyang at rush hour show plenty of people walking and cycling to work, yet our engagements passed through empty streets, leading to a few vague deductions and guesses. One was that everyone in Korea went to work at exactly the same time – unlikely, but possible. Another was that once people arrived at their office, they were there for the day. This too was theoretically possible. And there was the Occam’s Razor: tourists and the population were being kept separate on purpose.
The lack of people in many of the locations was surreal. Roads had no pedestrians. Below the streets, in the subway system that doubles as a nuclear bunker, there were very few people to see us try a couple of stops on the line. Most bizarrely was the final day, when we returned to Kim Il-sung Square and were the only people, bar two others, in the entire space. One cannot imagine any other capital’s central plaza being so deserted. Even in Ljubljana, on a Sunday when the churches were in, there were more people outside.
One of the most tedious things a self-proclaimed traveller ever says is ‘I saw the real x’. This is usually done in a youth hostel, and is swiftly followed by advice on how to visit exactly the same farming community, thus proving the individual’s pioneer credentials. But in North Korea the suspicion – even knowledge – is that guests are most certainly not seeing the real x (unless manipulation is, in itself, real). For this reason it is wise to accept that documentaries might be worthwhile supplements. Daniel Gordon’s A State of Mind shows more casual North Korean living than I saw on the ground, and undoubtedly others exist.
Mass Games Times
The most surreal instance of Korean life being bent around foreign visitors was at the Mass Games, where the entire show (100 000 performers, one stand of spectators, including standard military types) was waiting for our bus to arrive. Only when us 30 stragglers sat down was it time to begin.
Although the content of Mass Games is stupidly political, or politically stupid, they are a wonder of the world. Our group was able to watch two different versions, an afternoon gymnastics show and the evening brilliance of Arirang, a double up which we were told was lucky. Mass Games do not happen every year, and tend to do two or three weeks of consecutive performances before vanishing. Coupled with the reports of Kim Jong-Il’s stroke, this felt like we had hit Korea at a significant moment – but then most visitors probably feel this, and the North is usually up to something to provoke interest.
In terms of describing the Mass Games, it is best to imagine a competent Olympic opening ceremony as a base. Groups of school age gymnasts – hundreds per group – arrive on the field and perform their individual excellence in unison, often in formations and garbed in colours that craft pictures on the ground. Meanwhile behind them sits an entire stand of people holding coloured cards, swapping them in perfect time to draw out the legends and history of North Korea, as written by the incumbants.
Training for the Mass Games, as shown in the previously mentioned A State of Mind, takes years. It is, one has to imagine, an event that could only happen in a nation with such tight authoritarian controls, because parents in liberal democracies might question why their child is standing on his head to honour the military. Nonetheless, since it is here there is no denying that it is awesome, in the original sense of the word. Whilst it is impossible for anyone, of any power, to control North Korea, anyone planning a tour would be wise to peruse the Arirang timetable.