Even people who aren’t very familiar with North Korean issues know that Kim Jong Il wasn’t your average man. There are plenty of news articles, testaments, and photos to verify this. He had a lot of different hobbies and interests. And North Korean propaganda only adds to his “bigger than life” reputation. I’ve put together a few of those facts and rumors into this article to take a look at. So let’s begin.
Before I search for other traces of art in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I aim to publicize a few more interesting works of pop art (and propaganda) created by the escape artist Song Byeok. The two pieces “Fall into My Arms” (above) and “Take Off Your Clothes” (below) both feature the late Kim Jong Il in unconventional forms.
“Fall into My Arms” features Kim Jong Il as the female partner of a dancing couple. He smiles as he quite literally falls into the arms of his male companion as if he were truly tripping over his own feet and pouring his full weight onto the sensuous male supporting him on the dance floor. As he dances, Kim Jong Il maintains his notorious grin and his iconic sunglasses. Song’s painting makes the former leader of the North Korean regime appear like one of the celebrities chosen to compete in the popular television series, Dancing with the Stars. And Kim Jong Il is certainly a star in the eyes of the people of North Korea since, as Song states in his interview with Ferguson, “They believe they are so much better off than the rest of the world because of their two leaders, who are like two suns.” Kim Jong Il is a star that shines brighter than the millions of stars that form our galaxy – he is as radiant as the sun. Continue reading
Continuing my first article on the pop art by Song Byeok, a former party member and propaganda artist of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, this article takes a look into one of Song’s notable pieces to explore his relationship to his former homeland and the ideas that one can glean from the image “Flower Children.”
Looking at the image of “Flower Children,” the young girls stand in their school uniform either waving excitedly or smiling at the audience despite the holes in their shoes symbolizing their poverty. Moreover, all of their eyes are closed. Looking more closely at the faces of each individual child, though two or three appear genuinely ecstatic, the other girls have more faces – as they smile and accept or turn a blind eye to the way things are in North Korea, the people have grown weary as their circumstances have yet to change. Paul Ferguson also addresses this painting in his CNN article; Ferguson writes, “The girls in “Flower Children” are waving and posing for foreigners in the way they’ve been trained: brimming with confidence that they live in the world’s greatest country. Song painted them with their eyes closed, blind to the reality of their poverty.” As mentioned in the first part of these articles about Song’s artwork, Song admits that his initial reasons for leaving North Korea temporarily, when his father was still living, revolved around the need for food and work; likewise, most other North Koreans also defect for similar reasons. Continue reading
In the News – North Korea: A Westerner’s Look in Forbidden Pyongyang
A member of Greek Reporter.com shows us what very few Westerners have the opportunity to see in their lifetime. After spending a full month in the Asian country where visitors are very rarely allowed, we have decided to share what we experienced.
North Korea is a country where appearances can be deceiving; where contradictory forces are always clashing with each other. It is a rather ‘tough’ country with its secrets kept away safe – although no one really knows what these secrets are.
Before arriving in the country, I had already read books about North Korea and spent many hours on YouTube watching the forbidden videos shot by those few who had already been there. It all looked kind of scary! I was expecting to visit a country, where the people would act like robots; where children would never play but rather cite from their leaders’ work and march to the beat of revolutionary songs. When I came to North Korea I did come across a paranoid and simultaneously claustrophobic system, but the robots were nowhere to be found.
Even if the capital city is used as a key part of the official propaganda of the state, I should admit that it is a very beautiful place. It’s a city where architecture serves politics in the most absolute way. Huge but strictly defined squares, cubic buildings, massive structures, where individualism disappears before collectivism – as this is comprehended by the ruling class.
Can individualism really grow in such an environment? I would say that even the weirdest regimes in the world cannot halt the social dynamics shaping the tolerance and the intolerance of people. These dynamics must never be underestimated because they form the grey zones absorbing tensions and allowing regimes to survive.
Walking around Pyongyang, you will not see westernized stores. No cafés, no bars… The division of labor is strict and the citizens are responsible for particular duties and jobs. You will see people cleaning the public areas with reverence, watering the trees on the pavements, pulling the grass from the flowerbeds on the streets. Among those people someone will be supervising, while at the same time someone else will supervise the supervisor. The secret is not to know who is being supervised by whom.
Following the same logic, the rules concerning the traffic of the few vehicles and many bicycles are always changing. One day you are allowed to cross the road, and the next you’ll be forced to get off your bike and go back by the wild whistling of the traffic policeman. The secret here is that you will never know what exactly you are allowed to do or not, so that fear can have a stronger grip on you…
This is like Orwell’s 1984 has been alarmingly brought to life (for those who have read it, you know exactly what I mean). Yet, since life is not a book, there are some grey zones in Pyongyang too.
Moving to Pyongyang’s west bank and the image is changing. Sunday afternoon and long queues are formed outside the public pubs where beer and cigars are sold. Full of men and women, these pubs are a meeting point to discuss and chat through a glass of Taedong beer. For the ones not favoring beer, tea and sorbets await them and their families outside the North Korean cafés made of cement. Nearby, women are drying their hair in the ancient hairdryers of a public hairdresser. Some children with plastic skaters are running up and down the park, while teenagers play basketball in the many small courts.
However, what North Koreans really like doing on Sundays is boat riding. Children with their parents, teenagers and couples are all waiting in line to take one of the rusted boats and enjoy a romantic or peaceful ride down the river. Young women all dressed up and holding umbrellas against the sun are sitting next to men wearing khaki uniforms and patiently rowing to impress their sweethearts. All across the bank elderly people are playing cards, eating and looking around them. If the above sounds too good to be true, I can assure you this is the honest truth. Well, it is surely one of the many truths dwelling in this country.
Because next to the pretty ladies with their umbrellas and the fat babies nabbing on their sorbets, you can also see dozens of poorly nourished laborers working non-stop to build, mend and clean the huge, empty buildings downtown. Close enough you can see the charcoal blackened faces of little children, the dilapidated window shields from the apartments of the people, the containers of water, which is steadily becoming harder to access, and the broken tiles of the pavements… If you take a closer look you may even see and the not so beautiful women, whose darkened, coarse skin and their premature wrinkles tell a different story…
In the end, everyone can choose the truth that suits them!
In the News – Young general comes out as mother’s boy
By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO – In a risky gamble, Pyongyang is resting its hopes for the survival of the Kim regime on one woman – a dead one at that. Struggling to cement his dynastic credentials, young North Korean leader Kim Jong-eun has launched a mass deification campaign for his mother and the first lady of late leader Kim Jong-il, Ko Young-hee, who is believed to have died in 2004.
Since May, Young-hee has been praised as the “Respected Mother”, the “Great Mother” and “The Mother of The Great Military First Korea”, as can been seen in a film and photographs obtained by Asia Times Online this month from Rescue the North Korean People! (RENK), a Japan-based citizens’ group supporting ordinary North Koreans.
The idolization of Young-hee connects a missing link in the blood-heir’s succession over three generations from the country’s founding father Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il and to Kim Jong-eun.
Ko Young-hee poses with her husband for a propaganda shot
Experts say the deification campaign is part of accelerated North Korean efforts to mythologize and legitimize its revolutionary tradition. Pyongyang’s official accounts claim this originated in the sacred Mt Paektu, the highest peak in the Korean Peninsula and the birthplace, in propaganda accounts, of Kim Jong-il. (Soviet records show that he was actually born in a village in Russia’s Far East.)
The video of Ko does not mention an inconvenient truth – Young-hee was born in Japan – the brutal colonial ruler of Korea from 1910-1945. She was born in the famous Koreatown, Tsuruhashi, in Osaka, in 1952. Her father, Ko Kyung-taek, made Imperial Japanese Army soldiers’ uniforms in a sewing factory during World War II.
“North Korea needs to cover up the fact that Ko Young-hee was born and raised in Osaka,” said RENK spokesman Lee Young-hwa, adding that her family moved to North Korea only in the early 1960s as part of a repatriation program.
The video and photographs stress that Ko Young-hee had a strong relationship with the military.
Sound and vision
The rare 85 minutes of video footage and 93 photographs of Ko Young-hee for the first time reveal her vivid appearance and voice. In the video and photos, she accompanies Kim Jong-il to military camps, factories and farms. She is seen riding a white horse, following her husband on another white horse.
She inspects a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades with Kim Jong-il, with both wearing the same vintage Courreges sunglasses that became trademark apparel for her husband. They murmured words into each other’s ears and smiled. The video shows a very happily married couple.
This image of Ko Young-hee was likely inspired by the Korean song General on a Galloping White Horse.
In one scene, she visits a barrack and expresses concern about soldiers’ daily lives. She tastes a soldier’s home-made donut, then teaches them how to cook a potato-based donut. In the following days, she sends them sugar and cooking oils.
The movie aims to conjure an image of the “Mother of The Great Military First Korea”, which is the video’s title. The movie uses emotional female narration and a rousing musical score in the classic North Korean style of propaganda.
She is also seen holding a gun, suggesting a strong wife who always protects her husband. This was echoed scenes of Kim Jong-suk, or Kim Il-sung’s first wife and Kim Jong-il’s mother, who was a guerilla and communist politician. The images also showed Ko met many dignitaries abroad, stressing her precious role as the first lady.
Ko Young-hee pictured with an unknown foreigner.
The attempts to establish Ko’s authority also stress the Kim dynasty’s heroic family lineage, which stretches back to Jong-eun’s grandfather’s partisan guerilla activities against Japan in the 1930s.
After Ko’s family moving back to North Korea in the early 1960s, she worked as a dancer for the prestigious Mansudae Art Troupe in Pyongyang, where she met Kim Jong-il. She is believed to have died in Paris due to breast cancer in 2004, which the video also does not mention.
Ko Young-hee pictured with a young Kim Jong-eun.
By sanctifying the late Ko, Kim Jong-eun is trying to underscore his authority as the North’s new leader. The efforts also come as the “young general” has been repeatedly seen with a woman who is believed to Hyon Song-wol, a former singer in a popular group called Bochonbo Electronic Music Band.
However, making it tricky for propagandists there are no photos or scenes of Jong-eun with his parents. RENK’s Lee points out that this was because Kim Jong-eun was studying in Switzerland from 1996 to 2002 when the video was made. In contrast, North Korea has shown many photos of Kim Jong-il with his parents, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk.
An ugly truth
It is widely known among Japanese experts on North Korea that Ko Young-hee’s father moved from Cheju Island to Japan in 1929. He worked for Hirota Hokojo, a needlework factory under the control of the Imperial Army of Japan. This means Jong-eun’s grandfather was a collaborator with the Japanese imperialists. This can never be revealed by Pyongyang as it might shock the population.
In addition, Young-hee’s younger sister, Ko Young-suk, and her family defected to the United Sates in 1998 in the middle of the nation’s “great famine”, in which millions of people died of starvation. This makes Kim Jong-eun’s aunt a national traitor. According to the South Korean media, Kim Jong-eun himself has given orders to execute any defectors by a firing squad and their families expelled to internal exile.
Sanctifying Young-hee may provide indirect support for her son, but it is a risky ploy. Information on her birth and family may trickle out to the isolationist country, damaging his legitimacy as national leader. Ko Young-hee’s background continues to be one of Kim Jong-eun’s – as well as North Korea’s – dangerously weak spots.
In all of the novels that I have read about dystopias, art and literature always suffer a blow in some way. So, having grown up in a post-Cold War society that has taught me to associate its remnants with the dystopias of the literature required for a trimester of high school English, I wondered in what ways art and literature may be restrained in North Korea. Looking for signs of self-expression, I came across the artist Song Byeok, a former propaganda artist who defected from North Korea and continues to produce art in South Korea. In Paul Ferguson’s CNN article on the success of Song’s exhibition this past winter, I learned that, despite being a full member of the communist party of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Song Byeok also suffered from the food shortages and famines of the late twentieth century, which forced him to cross the Tumen River in search of food in China. In need of food, he and his father attempted to cross the river together. Unfortunately, his father drowned in the act. Though a devoted party member who openly praised the North Korean people and culture as superior, Song still faced confinement in a North Korean detention center after authorities caught him searching the river for his father’s body. Not receiving understanding from those who had captured him after the death of his father, Song decided to defect. Continue reading
In the News – N. Korea faxes propaganda messages to S. Korean groups
SEOUL, May 8 (Yonhap) — North Korea has sent faxed messages to 13 South Korean civic and religious organizations in recent weeks to criticize South Korea’s alleged insult to the North’s dignity, an official said Tuesday.
The messages came in response to South Korea’s accusation that the North wasted millions of dollars on celebrating the centennial of the April 15 birth of the country’s late founder Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un.
South Korea has said the North should have used the money to buy much-needed food for its 24 million people.
Some South Koreans have recently held anti-Pyongyang events in Seoul.
One of the messages claimed that Seoul’s insult to the North is a provocation by conservative forces to win the presidential election in December, according to the official who is familiar with the issue.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s single five-year term ends early next year and by law, he cannot seek re-election. North Korea has repeatedly condemned Lee as a traitor and called for his ouster in an apparent protest of his hard-line policy toward Pyongyang.
The latest faxed messages came as Pyongyang has threatened to launch special military actions to reduce Seoul to ashes in minutes over Seoul’s defamation of the North’s leader.
Original article can be found here.
In the News – Defectors send anti-regime leaflets to N. Korea
PAJU, South Korea, April 28 (Yonhap) — About 40 North Korean defectors launched balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets into the communist state Saturday, as the communist country stepped up its saber-rattling against the South.
The activists from the Fighters for Free North Korea group sent 10 large balloons carrying 200,000 leaflets from Imjingak pavilion in the northern border city of Paju about 50 kilometers northwest of Seoul.
Activists in the South have frequently sent propaganda leaflets across the border, condemning the autocratic North Korean regime and calling for an uprising against the leadership. The isolationist country is currently ruled by Kim Jong-un, the grandson of the country’s founder Kim Il-sung.
Pyongyang has frequently threatened retaliation for the South’s anti-regime propaganda activities including the launching of leaflets, although no real actions have been taken place so far.
Recently, the North threatened military retaliation against South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and those that have insulted the integrity of the communist regime.
Original article can be found here.
In the News – Harsh Punishments for Poor Mourning
The North Korean authorities have completed the criticism sessions which began after the mourning period for Kim Jong Il and begun to punish those who transgressed during the highly orchestrated mourning events.Daily NK learned from a source from North Hamkyung Province on January 10th, “The authorities are handing down at least six months in a labor-training camp to anybody who didn’t participate in the organized gatherings during the mourning period, or who did participate but didn’t cry and didn’t seem genuine.” Continue reading
I remember going to the DMZ and being curious about what the experience would be like from the other side. Even though we saw documentaries during our internship about North Korea, they involved commonly photographed locations, like the stadium for extravagant displays of gymnastics and the theme park from hell. However, recently I saw the Vice Guide to North Korea online, and, though it made the same conclusions about the process of touring North Korea as a foreigner, it did highlight some different occasions, not to mention a funny host that livens up the grim locations. Here are some interesting locations and details they covered that I had not seen in other documentaries: Continue reading