Propaganda is absolutely everywhere in North Korea — literally, everywhere. 

Whether it’s about their great leaders (the two dead ones everyone acts like are still alive, or the current one who everyone pretends like doesn’t exist), specifically, how great and smart their great leaders are, how great and smart their great leaders are at being smart and great, and/or how great and smart their great smart leaders are at identifying, solving and fixing all problems in the universe; or how strong and powerful their military is, particularly when crushing the Imperialist Americans; or how disgusting and despicable the U.S. and South Korea are, just in general; or how pleasing and fantastic their (imaginary) lives are in North Korea, it’s everywhere.

Propaganda pervades every single facet of every single moment of every single day in the lives of North Koreans. Be it billboards, posters, paintings, statues, monuments, photos, stamps, books, cinema, television, educational system…the inculcation of party dogma begins at birth and never ceases. It’s e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. All the time.

Televisions are supplied pre-tuned to North Korean stations only (foreign media is illegal with harsh punishment for those who manage to disobey the law) and must be checked by and registered with the police — and even then, the overwrought, melodramatic programming designed to promote the state’s ideology and/or “leader love” (if really lucky…both) is only broadcast on limited stations, for limited times. Radios, on the other hand, are hardwired into homes and public spaces, and blast bombastic propaganda (or helpful talk radio) to the masses from sun up (literally) until I’m not sure when (let’s just say…I fell asleep to it more than once).

The newspaper, which seemed to only be available on public stands in public spaces is also (surprise) tightly controlled by the state, and pays no mind to facts — which also seem to be irrelevant when it comes to everything else, btw. Upon my return home I read online that Kim Jong Il’s (the first dead one) “Guidance for Journalists” advises that “newspapers carry articles in which they unfailingly hold the president in high esteem, adore him and praise him as the great revolutionary leader,” and that journalists (who are all members of the party) who do not follow strict laws, face punishment in the form of “hard labor” or imprisonment, even for the “smallest typing errors.” Given my typo rate…I’d be dead.

And EVERY SINGLE “citizen” is required to wear a pin on his/her clothing featuring one or more of the great leader’s visages EVERY SINGLE DAY. Sidebar/different story, but bottom line — after a very lengthy and useless exchange with one of my handlers, me trying to uncover what happens to a citizen should he or she fail to wear his or her LEADER pin (sometimes I would just keep pushing with questions to amuse myself; most days I didn’t ask a single question) — the last round of our exchange went like this — Me: ok, but…what if your house caught fire and you had to run outside to save yourself and you forgot your pin so you couldn’t wear it… Handler: I don’t know such day…victory, hers.

A funny aside, when I got home, I actually read online that in an emergency such as a HOUSE FIRE, North Koreans are forced to rescue pictures of the great leaders before ANYTHING else, including babies! I wouldn’t give this much credit, except for…see above sidebar. Also, as a final aside — you do not officially become DPRK “citizen” until you turn 17. When I asked my handler what you were considered from when you are born until age 17 since you are not a Korean citizen, she responded, “a child.” Fair enough.

“Our Military Rocks” propaganda posters like this hang everywhere. What makes this photo interesting is that it’s “illegal,” in that I was not allowed to take it.

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It works like this: Tourists are not allowed to take photos outside of Pyongyang unless specifically told they can. I took this in Kaesong. Tourists are also not allowed outside of their hotels — not even one foot outside the front door — without their handlers with them. At this hotel in Kaesong, I was allowed to walk “the grounds” before dinner, but was told explicitly that while I could walk up to the gate to the outside, I could only walk up to the INSIDE edge of the outside gate (what you see on the left side of the photo). I was NOT allowed through, or outside of the gate. They explained the gate was like a “ front door” that I couldn’t go through when staying at a hotel in Pyongyang.

I went just past the inside edge of the outside gate and asked if I could take a photo of the real world before me. I was told no. So I took this photo. Stupid rules are hard to follow.

Other things to note. Since I was not allowed to take this photo, these are real people doing real things, like riding bikes.

There are no cars in NoKo. Well, there are cars, but only for very special people. And for people who have to drive the tiny little trucks for farming/labor. I also think they have people just drive around in cars in Pyongyang to help secure its image as a normal, healthy city. So in Pyongyang, you see some cars; but outside Pyongyang, no cars. Only bikes, and people walking. People on bikes must dismount bikes at intersections and walk bikes across — even if the intersection is a driveway, like this one.

A few times I would see people look around, and then stay on their bikes and ride across the intersections. Were they being brave? Or were they just sick of being told what to do? Or maybe they were just tired (North Koreans work six days a week, and must volunteer on the seventh).

Who knows? But the few times I saw a North Korean flaunting the “walk your bike” law, I promise you, I silently wished him or her good luck, and wondered if he or she might just be the one to start a revolution.

propaganda mural Pyongyang

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