Essays

The Faraway Kingdom of North Korea

by Hrag Vartanian on December 21, 2011

North Korean Anti-American posters that read (clockwise from top left) The US is truly an axis of evil, Let's drive the US imperialists out and reunited the fatherland, Wicked Man and Don't forget the US imperialist wolves. (via businessinsider.com)

The death of Kim Jong Il has reinforced the feeling that North Korea may just be one of the most remote places on earth, yet it is a distance not based on geography but psychology. Looking at the retro-seeming images from this faraway land makes me think its population of 24 million has been trapped in amber for decades.

A picture of the night-time illumination on the Korean peninsula. (via bigthink.com)

Unlike other Communist nations, North Korea appears to have stopped all their clocks sometime in the 1970s and the colors, landscapes and people feel like elaborate movie sets to us in the West. Even a communist state like Cuba blends in with its poor and underdeveloped neighbors but North Korea is surrounded by states that are on the vanguard of technology and development and this only highlights its anachronistic reality. If you look at a picture of the night-time illumination on the Korean peninsula the disparity is obvious, the land of Kim Jong Il appears uninhabited.

In the age of globalization, the northern Korea feels as foreign to us as some remote tribe in the Amazon. The images that we’re being flooded with since the the death of the Supreme Leader reinforce our notion of this fairy tale-like kingdom in a corner of the Earth that technology has forgotten. The images of Kim Jong Il embalmed also have a Snow White feel to them. Of course, North Korea is nothing like a fairy tale though there certainly are similarities with the genre, including the autocratic familial dynasty and the prevalence of poor citizens/serfs, but nowhere is a benevolent monarch/dictator which rules our ideas of who would govern a good fairy tale. Of course, not all fairy tales are good but usually they do have some type of moral or lesson, North Korean appears to lack that as well.

Some of the most curious photos coming out of North Korea are those that portray childhood indoctrination. Tomas Van Houtryve’s image of nursery-school children being instructed to love their dictator is in a dream-like setting even if it is staged in front of a chintzy veneer. He has framed the image to emphasize the sense that this is their world, surrounded by painted rainbows, manmade landscapes and adults giving them direction, the dictator is clearly at the center of their world. Gone is the disorder and diversity we’re accustomed to seeing in our own nursery schools.

A photo by Tomas Van Houtryve of Nursery-school children being told by their teacher to revere Kim Il Sung, the "Great Leader." (via time.com)

It goes without saying that North Korean reality is quite different from what we often see in the official and clandestine images that have emerged from the country. As Achitizer suggests:

Looking at the coverage, you’d think a cartoon villain had died, rather than a megalomaniac responsible for genocide by famine.

Photos are often a source of witness but these images feel more silent and timeless. You even get a sense that the figures are afraid to speak, a feeling augmented by traditional East Asian mores that preference a formal and posed public face over the casual snapshot.

The country’s ubiquitous propaganda posters reinforce the retro nature of North Korean reality. Their stark humorless social realism is churned out for an audience that is instructed with literal interpretation that leaves no room to dream.

Even in photos of celebration there appears to be seriousness and caution in the air. The images of performing children are often the most human in that they remind me of child beauty pageant contestants in the US, though obviously more austere.

Those of us outside North Korea, and particularly in the West, have had trouble responding the the images of Kim Jong Il and his kingdom without resorting to humor or horror. Michael Shaw of BagNewNotes writes that:

More likely though, the reactions to these photos are mirrors into our own cultural psyche. It seems many — ingrained in the core, and unshakeable values of autonomy, free will, “don’t tread on me,”… and having been fed a steady stream of images of Kim as buffoon — look at these photos of crying Koreans not just with disbelief, but with distain [sic].

He’s right. The world in these images are of one man’s utopia, they are skewed by his personal quirks. To understand North Korea one would have to understand its leader, but always hiding behind sunglasses his eyes and world feel elusive.

Philipp Meuser's photo of the chronically unfinished Ryugyong Hotel is chilling. (via einestages.spiegel.de)

If we are to find the beauty of North Korea in the images than it is in its massive almost inhumanely scaled architecture. As Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan astutely points out, “The most fertile ground for megastructuralism is a totalitarian regime.”

The buildings are massive, like mountains and palaces made of concrete. They dwarf everything around them and reduce people to ants. The Ryugyong Hotel is the most famous example of the regime’s aesthetic aspirations and real world inadequacies. Started in 1987, the construction faltered when the Soviet Union fell and all the money associated with that once supportive regime dried up. Only in 2008 did work resume and this year the exterior of the structure has been completed, though other construction will continue until at least next year. The building in Philipp Meuser’s photograph is stark and unglamorous. The building that exists today is one that looks to Las Vegas for inspiration.

Part of the allure of North Korea for global observers is that it is inaccessible. As Westerners, we hate to hear “no,” as if the mere word activates us to fight against the prohibition. We want to see and know everything, whether as tourists, web surfers or temporary inhabitants. It is against our nature to let others tell us what we can and cannot do. We will create secret videos or guides, transmit photos, find ways around a firewall, anything to prove that nothing is forbidden anymore. The obstacles in visiting North Korea makes it more appealing, particularly when it is such a carefully constructed image for the outside and we’re all eager to peek behind the curtain.

I was particularly intrigued by the observations of one businessman who spoke to the BBC:

“North Korea is a land of vast motorways, some with as many as 10 lanes. But they are always empty. Very few people own cars.

Pedestrians and cyclists zig-zag across them as they are so unused to traffic.

But even though these roads host few vehicles, they are beautifully tended. Every Sunday, the people who live close by can be seen dusting down the gutter and pruning the shrubs on the road.”

It is as if the country was built as a stage for actors who never materialized. The worlds in fairy tales are often the same, they are drawn with broad brushstrokes and then disappear into your imagination. The problem with the images we see of North Korea is that it is a stage for millions of people who have no where else to go.


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  • b knight

    Network Awesome did a great program yesterday. Few documents in need of watching.
    http://www.networkawesome.com/archive/

    Ben Knight
    http://www.benknight.net

  • Anonymous

    Great article. Equating his regime to that of something out of the world of cinema seems to be a theme lately. I recently read an article on openculture.com about his obsession with film and film theory, and Al Jazeera’s ‘101 East’ just did a broadcast on Pyongyang’s University of Cinematic and Dramatic Arts (http://www.openculture.com/2011/12/kim_jong-ils_godzilla_movie.html). It really does seem that the utopia propagated in the minds of North Koreans, and that image projected to the world, was one of complete design by the ‘Great Leader.’ Again, another excellent essay at Hyperallergic.

    http://deskript.com/

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