Photoshop in North Korea (and other surprises)

I never thought that they would have Photoshop in North Korea. Even setting aside the name brand Adobe software, it never occurred to me that there might be digital image manipulation in a country stuck a few decades in the past.

But a great photo analysis from The New York Times Lens blog finds evidence that it’s there.

You may not have seen photos from Kim Jong-Il’s nation-blanketing funeral proceedings, though if you haven’t you should seek them out—they are often of a cinematic quality, citizens in the highest stages of grief, perfectly orchestrated snow falling everywhere all the time.

Like this:

In another well-framed picture a flock of limousines drives through downtown Pyongyang, flanked on either side by crowds of mourners:

Some diligent eye noticed a similar picture taken by a Kyodo News photographer, at almost exactly the same time:

See the difference? There is a group of people—looks like cameramen—on the lower left side of the image who got cropped in the first image, sent out by North Korea’s Central New Agency. Apparently the stragglers, their attention less obviously directed toward Kim Jong Il’s limousine, were removed from the image to preserve the purity of the mourning scene.

The Times’ close comparison of the two images revealed clear markers of digital photo manipulation, a fascinating investigation of digital forensics that I will leave to the original post if you are interested in it.

So Photoshop has both presence and use in North Korea. No one is surprised that the North Korean government and media are carefully manipulating their audience’s views of life in the Hermit Kingdom. But it is surprising to discover that their manipulation takes on such insubstantial subjects as this, teaching us that even the smallest details of life in North Korea are subject to government alteration. Everything is shaped to fit the fiction.

As for me, I am astonished that North Korea even has the technology to do this. They barely have internet. I know that the technology in the hands of most citizens is closer to oxcarts and plows than to Photoshop, but it made me very curious as to the state of the rest of North Korean science. If they have Photoshop, do they have… cell phones? Animation artists? Income tax software that computes your deductible for you? Hackers? These are just the first symptoms of advanced digital technologies that I was able to think of.

Here is what I found:

Cell Phones

Answer: Yes! My trusty New York Times reports that cell phones were introduced in 2002. By June 2004 they had been banned, possibly in response to a train bombing thought to have been triggered by a mobile phone. At that point cell phones had been available for eighteen months, and about twenty thousand people were using the service. So they were there, but barely.

Then, at the end of 2008, cell phone service was re-launched in Pyongyang. There seem to have been about 500,000 subscribers by early 2011—far more widespread than the first launch. It also seems likely that black market phones are brought in from China. That’s an overall market penetration in North Korea of at least 2%. Impressive!

Somewhat related: cell phone market penetration in South Korea passed 105% in early 2011.

Animation Artists

Answer: Yes! The Asia Times reports that North Korean animators are highly skilled and have worked on such films as Pocahontas and The Lion King, presumably subcontracted through subdivisions such as Disney Europe, which circumvents US sanctions against trading with North Korea (cue James Earl Jones voice: “Simba… you have deliberately disobeyed me”).

Fun fact from across the border: South Korea was the world’s largest supplier of television animation in the 1990s. Almost all of The Simpsons was drawn in Seoul, along with a host of other popular animated TV shows, including Futurama, Pinky and the Brain, and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Income Tax Software

Answer: There are no official taxes in North Korea. In fact, April 1st is commemorated nationally as Tax Abolition Day, which is funny because it’s not exactly true. April Fools! The Daily NK reports that North Koreans pay taxes in various forms on electricity usage, food staples, general organizational expenses at work, education, market stall rentals, and so on. Some of them are straight fees collected by state officials, and others are more akin to bartering, where students might pay a tax of rabbit pelts to cover administrative expenses.


Answer: Yes! My infallible friend The New York Times reports that, in 2011, in a clever application of cyber-knowhow, teams of North Korean hackers manipulated popular South Korean computer games to earn foreign hard currency. This is fascinating. They worked in Northern China in tandem with a few South Koreans to make over $6 million and send about half of it back to North Korea, which due to widespread sanctions has very little opportunity to obtain foreign currency to use with its few trading partners (mainly China).

Lesson learned: there is always more than meets the eye!


2 thoughts on “Photoshop in North Korea (and other surprises)

    • The first photo is to illustrate North Korea’s dramatic photos.
      Also, yes, this article was written Jay McNair. His name card has been added to the article. I apologize for the confusion.

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