The hate-hate relationship between North Korea and the US is flourishing. After Pyongyang launched a series of ballistic missiles last summer, the hermit state has gone temporarily passive, with the threat dipping below the boil of media-frenzied, imminent war to a steady simmer. But the tensions persist. Coupled with the threat of nuclear arms, the current scene is reminiscent of the Cold War: the capitalist West against the final bastion of the communist East.
‘propaganda found prominence as a tool for persuading the masses in the first and second world wars.’
In a world where capitalism has become the economic and political norm, surviving communist regimes face a continuing struggle. In North Korea, communication technology has filtered in, economic sanctions are biting hard and the flaw of propping up an isolated, constricted economy makes the lifespan of Communist Korea look short. But the state persists, seeking to pull the wool over its people’s eyes as its domestic conditions deteriorate. And, like its authoritarian predecessors in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, North Korea has an effective brain-washing tool: propaganda.
Propaganda has served communist states since the Russian Revolution, having found prominence as a tool for persuading the masses in the First and Second World Wars. Here, the effectiveness of its characteristic slogans and striking, hard-hitting images was realised.
‘Your Country Needs You’ is the stereotype. Lord Kitchener’s finger pointing directly at the viewer left little ambiguity: this was a call to arms for the audience, and the responsibility in answering it was on them. If the images in World War propaganda were explicit, the language was even clearer. Short statements got straight to the point and discarded the unnecessary frills.
Hitler knew the potential of propaganda, devoting two chapters of Mein Kampf to the method. The poster of ‘Der Deutsche Student’ encapsulates the Aryan ideology in a single image. There is almost nothing to decode. The poster depicts the ‘ideal’ Aryan youth, standing alongside the Nazi Party’s emblem. His patriotism is clear. The physical qualities worshipped by the Nazi regime are exemplified, then deepened by ‘the’ – the definitive article – which asserts that there is only one, singular German ideal.
But away from its crude, garish appearance, such propaganda has a subversive impact. Think of the Nazi poster’s bright colours, its simple shapes. Look away and these features are easy to remember. That, in Hitler’s eyes, was the power of propaganda. Its simplicity and boldness made it memorable. Sticking to the mind’s eye like glue, any ideology – be it the Aryan ideal or the glorification of Hitler himself – could be internalised by the population.
This poster-format propaganda was just as important for the Soviet Union. Citizens were presented with pictures of sturdy workers, donning tools and standing proudly behind some form of red flag. Again, the simplicity seems almost laughable in hindsight. But propagating an image of the devoted labourer would – for many disillusioned, economically impoverished Soviet workers – instil a sense of national duty, which could then enforce the ‘norm’ of committed and productive work.
‘sticking to the mind’s eye like glue, any ideology can be internalised by a population through propaganda.’
Both Hitler and Stalin recognised the need to enforce loyalty in citizens, given their radical political visions and increasingly authoritarian strategies. Propaganda, then, was crucial. Take the poster below. Stalin is shown as the larger-than-life leader of an enormous, unified empire. The soldiers form in their ranks, waving the Soviet flag. Fighter jets take flight in the background. The regime is all-powerful, its citizens are implicated as supporting the same cause and Stalin is the architect.
Fast forward to North Korea today, and the same values of nationalism and military pride are propagated.
The Kim family’s claim to authority is endorsed by its propaganda. The regime’s three successive leaders have all been glorified by paintings, sculptures and posters. Kim Il-sung – the original Kim – was often painted in a golden halo, with all the obvious godly connotations that follow. Deifying the leader in this way is no fluke. It places the Kim family in a place of worship and utmost respect (just see the distraught, grief-stricken faces at Kim Jong Un’s funeral in 2012), which makes their hereditary, authoritarian rule unquestionable.
The state’s juche ideology is also promoted by propaganda, with images that show citizens raising the theory’s book to the sky. The ideology, in short, professes the brilliance and vision of the North Korean regime. Again, the desired effect is one of subliminal, unthinking acceptance. What’s more, Korean citizens – when interviewed – appear to believe that the wider world is envious of their society’s superiority.
The North Korean propaganda mission doesn’t end there, but extends its scope to a more disturbing ideal: racial purity. The fifty won banknote displays three citizens, in a laudable throw to the masses (just in case you were starting to think North Korean socialism was all about Kim). However, the citizens look airbrushed and almost identical, clone-like. My interpretation: the more perfect the regime, the more perfect the citizen. The uniformity does another thing too. Given that North Korea views the plurality of capitalism as repugnant, it provides a pleasing, simplified aesthetic – the antidote.
The North Korean military doesn’t escape the propaganda. Most recently, the state launched a series of posters that explicitly boasted of its (questionable) capacity to hit the US with missile strikes. Whilst this may have been a warning to the US, I’d suspect it deepened North Korean support for their advantage in relation to the outer world.
‘images are more proliferate than ever before, and are drip-fed to us every day by advertising, tv and the internet.’
North Korea shows that visual propaganda is still crucial to authoritarian regimes. While it may seem berserk from the outside, the widespread acceptance of national pride and Kim Jong Un’s godly position within the state shows that propaganda still works. In doing so, it corrupts the independence and autonomy of its subjects.
That said, old-school propaganda is largely a thing of the past. Its style is too overt, simplistic and associated to have any effect. The political poster is something played around with by artists wishing to make ironic, stand-out statements. The medium is all too familiar; we see the usual slogans twisted into a pun and laugh.
But this is our misconception. Propaganda has manifested itself, becoming increasingly diverse, sophisticated and complex as the ways in which we communicate have evolved. Images are more proliferate than ever before, and are drip-fed to us every day by advertising, TV and the internet. Propaganda may be less political, less recognisable and certainly less authoritarian. But it is anything but dead.