design

What North Korean propaganda posters reveal

Published 2nd January 2018
Credit: University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong
What North Korean propaganda posters reveal
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
To the outside world, North Korean propaganda posters are notorious for their militaristic and anti-American messages. Recent topics include Donald Trump being attacked with an axe and missiles pointing at Capitol Hill.
But one former Pyongyang resident is hoping that her sizable Korean poster collection can present a more nuanced picture of art in the reclusive state. Stanford fellow Katharina Zellweger -- who lived in Pyongyang for five years while working for a Swiss government agency -- has collected over 100 examples from inside the country.
Most of the images promote agriculture and science, offering an alternative to the violent scenes typically associated with North Korean propaganda. The posters, which encourage hard work and solidarity, are reinforced with depictions of smiling model citizens and images celebrating national achievements.
With 25 of the posters now on display at the University Museum and Art Gallery in Hong Kong, CNN spoke to Zellweger and the museum's director, Florian Knothe, about the design elements in posters that are often overlooked.

Women feature prominently

"Let us better manage Pyongyang, the capital of innovation."
"Let us better manage Pyongyang, the capital of innovation." Credit: University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong
Soldiers depicted in anti-American (or anti-Japanese) posters are normally always male. But women are often used to communicate messages relating to agriculture and industry.
"Farmers are almost always smiling women promoting new agricultural policies and raising rabbits and producing more cotton," Zellweger said.
Knothe added: "You have a lot of females propagating topics that are labor or science related."

They communicate essential public information

"Let us plant more acacia trees."
"Let us plant more acacia trees." Credit: University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong
Like anywhere in the world, North Korea's authorities use posters as a channel for disseminating public information. With restricted internet access, and just a handful of authorized television channels, it's one of the most effective ways of reaching communities around the country.
"There was a poster produced for national census day in 2008," Zellweger said. "Everyone knew that they had to be home in order to meet the people (carrying out) the census."
North Korea also produces a number of anti-smoking posters, having joined the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005. The WHO reports that the country "keenly celebrates" World No Tobacco Day every year.

They document developments in the country

"Let us provide more electricity to the battlefields where we are breaking new ground!"
"Let us provide more electricity to the battlefields where we are breaking new ground!" Credit: University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong
North Korean propaganda can be used to track changes within the country. Historically, posters have reflected the priorities of the country's leadership at any given moment.
"You can really see how, over time, different policies were communicated to the people," Knothe said. "They (also) suggest social change, economic growth and scientific advances -- like the electrification of the country."
The posters in Zellweger's collection are particularly useful for examining developments that have taken place in the agricultural sector.
"(You can see) changes in crops and practices becoming more efficient," Knothe said. "A common drive is finding ways to be more productive. There's a poster featuring a microscope and a selection of crops that reads: ''Improvement for seeking high-yield seeds for varieties guarantee a rich harvest.'
"It's a very direct and blunt message, but I think that's a good example of (the mid-2000s) policies that tried to revolutionize farming."

Stylistically, little has changed

"Let us further encourage our nation's excellent sports activities and folk games!"
"Let us further encourage our nation's excellent sports activities and folk games!" Credit: University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong
Despite the advances depicted, the posters' style has remained remarkably consistent since the 1950s. They continue to draw heavily on the traditions of socialist realism, an artistic approach once popular throughout the communist world.
"I don't see a real development in their sophistication -- they follow their own tradition," Knothe said. "The posters in the exhibition (possess) a certain uniform look. They all differ tremendously in color and the way they talk to you, but the composition of the images is quite constant throughout time.
"What I find interesting is the way they use foreground and background -- a juxtaposition that is normally very well-defined. (In the foreground) they put a figure who addresses the people and makes that connection. And it's always a person who is communicating the message to the public."

Many are still hand-painted

"Let us raise more grass-eating animals!"
"Let us raise more grass-eating animals!" Credit: University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong
This continuity also reflects the production process, which has barely changed over the decades. Most of the posters -- including all of those in Zellweger's collection -- were painted by hand.
"What happens is that, usually, the government announces the subject -- let's say breeding rabbits -- and then different artists paint posters," Zellweger said. "Like a competition, one or two are chosen and then these are multiplied by the thousand in print."
Many of the works are produced at the Mansudae Art Studio, a state-run facility believed to employ around 1,000 of the country's most gifted artists. In addition to posters, the studio produces statues, paintings, ceramics and other state-supported artworks.

They reflect the country's literacy rate

"Spinning tops is fun!"
"Spinning tops is fun!" Credit: University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong
Almost all propaganda posters in North Korea feature large worded slogans. Examples from Zellweger's collection include: "Let us further encourage our nation's excellent sports activities and folk games!" and "Let us raise more grass-eating animals!"
Despite widespread poverty and low life expectancy, education is both free and compulsory in North Korea. Literacy may not be as high as the 100% figure reported by the country's officials, but Zellweger believes that posters are designed on the assumption that everyone can read.
"I've never met a North Korean boy or girl -- or adult -- who cannot read, write and do the simple math," she said.

Colors matter

"Let us extensively develop double cropping!"
"Let us extensively develop double cropping!" Credit: University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong
Propaganda posters typically rely on brightly colored images and text. But as well as catching the eye, colors are symbolic and have been chosen to resonate with the public.
"The traditional Korean color symbolism is based on the five elements -- wood, fire, earth, metal and water," Zellweger explained. "And most of the time, the posters use the five basic colors -- blue, red, yellow, white and black.
"The colors all have meaning. Red is the color of socialism and aggression but also passion. Blue means peace and harmony, though it also symbolizes integrity and is often used on educational posters. Black represents darkness and evil, so is often used in anti-American and anti-Japanese posters. Gold and yellow is for prosperity and glory."
"Korea's Public Face: Twentieth-century Propaganda Posters from the Zellweger Collection" is on at The University Museum and Art Gallery (UMAG) at the University of Hong Kong until Jan. 28, 2018.