Beyond the propaganda posters: Everyday design in North Korea

CNN  — 

The few examples of North Korean design seen by those outside the secretive state show a number of recurring themes. The destruction of the US is a common one, often depicted through propaganda posters of American soldiers being crushed or children curiously observing nuclear warheads.

But now a different side of modern design in the country – one rarely considered by non-North Koreans – is being showcased in a new book, “Made in North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in the DPRK.”

The book’s author, Nicholas Bonner, has been collecting intriguing examples of the country’s graphic design for almost 25 years. Having set up a travel company specializing in trips to North Korea, Bonner has been able to amass a variety of everyday items – such as food packets, postcards and toys – over the course of hundreds of visits.

“For a long while I collected what you’d just call ‘graphic found objects’ and put them in a box,” said Bonner, the founder of Beijing-based Koryo Tours. “Then I suddenly looked at it all and realized what I had.”

Patriotic design

A toy gun that fires plastic bullets.

Some of the items featured in Bonner’s book offer a glimpse into the country’s propaganda machine, such as the packaging of a toy gun showing a friendly cartoon Korean soldier, depicted as a hedgehog, shooting an American one, depicted as a wolf.

But other, less sinister examples are designed to celebrate North Korea, where a patriotic mentality is reinforced by the regime. A candy box, for example, shows a colorful, vibrant image of one of the Red Flag trains that serve the country’s east coast.

Most of the items were collected between 1993, when Bonner first visited North Korea, and 2005, when digital design methods started becoming more widely available. This is a period during which advertising – still a rarity in the country – did not exist in North Korea, according to Bonner. The design of all consumer products, from cigarette and food packets to postcards and comic books, had to be approved by the ruling party.

It is believed that a huge amount of the country’s design work is carried out at the Industrial Art Studio by graduates of Pyongyang Fine Arts University. The studio, Bonner says, is organized similarly to a university.

“What I’ve been told is that every year you get grades and … you have to keep up,” he said. “So although you’re working, it has that university feeling. At the top, they have people who say (whether) work is acceptable: ‘This can have our (North Korea’s) name on it.’”

Mountains and mythical horses

The packets of non-gift items, such as food, tends to be sleek but functional. Pork packaging has a picture of a pig on it, squid meat packaging features a picture of a squid.

A candy box showing the Red Flag train, which travels along North Korea's east coast.

In the absence of a hard-sell message, many of Bonner’s products feature symbols of national strength. The images are often at odds with the abject poverty that, according to the United Nations, much of North Korea’s population is forced to live in.

“Anything to do with mountains (is considered a great image) – areas such as Paektu, which is considered to have the cleanest air and to be the birthplace of the Korean people,” Bonner said. “[The mentality behind the design is,] if you’re going to have a cigarette and the packet has Paektu on it, you know it’s going to be a good smoke.”

Bonner explained that self-promotion through design is a longstanding tradition in North Korea.

“If you look at art sketches from the 1960s and 70s, wherever they could, they’d put an electricity pylon in there,” he said. “It was to say, ‘We’ve got electricity and we’re proud of it.’”

In addition to infrastructure and national achievements, a common image is that of Chollima, a mythical horse representing speed and achievement.

A packet of cigarettes by the Rakwon brand. It features images of Pyongyang structures including a statue of the Chollima: a mythical winged horse.

“It represents the city of Pyongyang – ‘Our city is best’,” said Bonner. “It’s based on the Chollima steelworks factory (outside Pyongyang). All this stuff (gives North Koreans) this idea of ‘home’ – like the New York skyline for a New Yorker, with every object recognizable.”

The theme of development can also be seen on a postcard showing a soldier dancing with a worker in front of a dam that’s under construction. The slogan beneath the carousing pair reads: “Let’s make the people and army unity as hard as steel.”

A postcard showing soldiers helping workers construct a dam, with the slogan, "Let's make the people and army unity as hard as steel."

“The two dancing figures are work brigade members,” said Koen De Ceuster, Korean Studies lecturer at Leiden University, over email. “Their dancing is part of the ‘encouragement’ that mobile propaganda units bring on-site: bands playing uplifting tunes, workers dancing while taking a break – it sounds unbelievable, but it does happen.

“The bond between armed forces and civilian society has been an enduring theme running through North Korean propaganda. If anything, it highlights that the army in North Korea is not only a fighting machine, but has an important social and economic function to perform.”

Princess Diana stamps

These propaganda images have been common in North Korea for decades, but there are some unusual examples of design in Bonner’s book – including a set of commemorative Princess Diana stamps. Released in 1982, they show the late princess with Prince William as a baby.

Bonner said that although some people in Pyongyang do collect stamps, these examples would have mainly been made by the Korea Stamp Corporation to sell to foreign collectors.

Stamps featuring Princess Diana celebrate the birth of Prince William, in 1982. Stamps such as these would have been made for foreign collectors and not used by the North Korean public.

“They (North Korean tour industry workers) knew they’d make money, and that it was a big market. ‘Whack it out, they’ll buy this one,’” he said.

Speaking to CNN Style in July, head of Asia studies at the University of British Columbia, Ross King, said that the Diana stamps were released simply because those who made them “thought that Brits were buying stamps.”

He added: “The US is another example of a country that uses the postal service to make a ton of money from gullible collectors. North Korea and the United States are very similar in that respect.”

“Made in North Korea: Graphics from Everyday Life in DPRK” is published by Phaidon and out on October 2, 2017.