We arrived in North Korea about a week after this went live. This is the LED display on the Ryugyong Hotel, a building which has been unfinished for the last 30-odd years. When we were driving to our hotel we made a special trip to stop the bus and see it. Our two North Korean guides were practically bursting with pride, while Matt, our Aussie guide and a fellow tourist Pierre, who was on his 9th trip to the DPRK, were absolutely agog to see it. Pierre took this picture (@pierredepont on Instagram). The excitement was palpable.
The huge LED display at the top of the hotel shows a huge North Korean flag unfurling and rippling triumphantly in the wind. In this little series, I’ve talked before about how the Kim family uses specific images and symbols to sear their brand onto the hearts and minds of their people. How powerful is the almost magical sight of their flag rising up 105 floors over their showcase city and shining its light over everything?
Remember, this is a population who has absolutely no internet. They’ve never seen photos and film of the bright lights of Times Square or Tokyo or Melbourne. They’ve never seen billboards or logos or commercials. “Just Do It” means nothing to them, while as for the notion of Coke adding life or Red Bull giving you wings? Incomprehensible!
But here is their Dear Leader providing a magical display of dazzling technology that will be the envy of the world. Along with their nuclear program, which is an equally huge source of pride.
The nuclear missiles even made it into the local Cake decorating show, while a guide at the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, the first Leader of North Korea who is worshipped like a god, casually mentioned their successful nuclear program right at the end of her speech extolling the virtues of the Kim family and their leadership. Talk about electrifying! It wasn’t at all what you expect to hear when viewing historical monuments. Yet it’s par for the course here.
Here’s my view of the Pyongyang marathon, viewed from the rear. (I’m not very fit.) This arch is a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Our Korean guide took great pride in telling us that it is 16 feet taller than the original. This particular Arch has the date that Kim Il Sung left Korea, vowing never to return until his country was free from Japanese rule, and the date of his return in 1945, when the Soviets installed him as the head of the government.
That last little piece of information isn’t known here. The legend states that he was a guerrilla fighter who, along with his soldiers, fought bravely to succeeded in defeating the Japanese, practically single-handedly. The arch was built for him by a grateful nation, with the Kim legend sculpted all over it.
It’s solid, huge and not to be argued with. How could it be based on falsehood, when it’s so darned substantial?
Pyongyang, and indeed the whole of the country as far as we could see, is dotted with ultra-large monuments to the regime and the country. This is the Hammer (industry), sickle (farmers), and the pen (students) that make up the fabric of society. The interior is lined with sculptures showing the heroic people and the fatherly figure of Kim Il Sung looking after them all.
Right from when the grandfather, (Kim Il Sung), took the reins of government, then the father, (Kim Jong Il), and now the son, (Kim Jong Un) – they’ve always been incredibly focussed on linking intense patriotism with the mystique of their family branding. This monument is on the Reunification Road, which our guide described as a Roman Road leading from Pyongyang directly to Seoul in South Korea, built so that when the American Aggressors finally leave the south, the two split nations can finally be whole again. ASAP.
This idea of the two nations being wrongly and shamefully split because of American greed is a pervasive one. The North Koreans have been sold this idea since birth and they are totally convinced that every Korean person longs whole-heartedly for reunification, which the Great Leader is, of course, working night and day to achieve. They get emotional when talking of how their country has been ripped in two and they long to be reunited with family members who are currently out-of-reach on the other side of the border. They pay lip-service to the idea that the government would have to be a committee, because “the people in South Korea are used to their way of running things and we have no wish to change ours”, as our North Korean guide said.
By holding the dream so clearly in front of the people and continually telling them that he is working tirelessly to bring it to fruition, the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong Un and his government is forever seen as a boon and a blessing by the people. The branding of the Kim family and its leadership is continual and constant.
It’s not just the people in the Kim family who are lauded and féted at every opportunity – it’s their philosophies and ideas that are sold to the people as well. This is a country convinced that the world banded together to crush them in the Korean War and it was only by the wisdom and bravery of their leader that they managed to survive. Here is the Juche Tower, built in the centre of Pyongyang, with the red flame always lit up at night so the light of Juche is always shining for the people.
Juche is basically a philosophy built around self-reliance, where you don’t ask for help and you solve all problems yourself. On the face of it, it sounds quite admirable, with images of independence, a strong backbone and a willingness to search for ways to solve things instead of weakly relying on someone else. However, for a leader of a hermit kingdom who definitely doesn’t want his people to be looking outside the borders for fresh ideas and help for any problems, this philosophy is ideal.
Juche ideals are threaded throughout the culture, with pop songs being sung about it, with books and newspaper articles extolling its virtues and references to it being made in every speech and concert broadcast in the country. A huge proportion of the university courses that are offered to workers are about Juche and the Leaders’ lives and the classes are (I’m told) learned by rote and the students memorise them.
Consumer goods and having the latest gadget is definitely not a ‘thing’ here. Immense pride in their country, their leader and their way of life most certainly is. They are convinced that their standard of living and their way of life is equal to, if not better than, the rest of the world. That’s some pretty efficient advertising right there…
And here is where the narrow focus of the regime on selling themselves comes to the ultimate fruition – here is Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – the most sacred place in all of North Korea, according to our guides. I wrote about it in more detail here, but in brief, this sprawling complex houses the embalmed bodies of the two deceased leaders.
It’s a Very Big Thing for a North Korean to be given permission to come here, with our guide telling us that before she got this job, she’d only been here once, when she turned 16. And this is from one of the privileged people who are able to live in Pyongyang, where her family has presumably succeeded in pleasing the regime for the last 3 or 4 generations. It’s truly a rite of passage for the people to be able to come here.
No cameras. No unseemly behaviour. Tall, serious soldiers everywhere. Passages and halls over a mile long, which are serviced by travellators. The dress code is strict and inflexible. Oliver from our group had to borrow a pair of trousers from another guy, otherwise he wouldn’t have been allowed in. I forgot to pack my black dress shoes and, thankfully, realised in time and raced out to buy a replacement pair in Beijing.
Reports vary about the amount of money spent to turn this place from a residence for Kim Il Sung into his mausoleum, with reports ranging from 100 million dollars to 900 million, if you can believe a sum so astronomical. There are chandeliers, marble walls and floors and ceilings that are at least 15 feet high. Priceless artefacts are everywhere, along with immense statues that we were expected to bow to.
This place is a shrine. If you, as a citizen, are permitted to come here, you are deeply honoured. It’s a triumph of form over substance. It’s where I, as an outsider, could clearly see the successful use of the Kim family’s branding and selling of itself as the saviour of the people.
The people who were queuing up to view the embalmed bodies of the Kims were not fearful or forced to be there, as you’d expect if they were scared to be sent to a re-education camp or something. They were deeply and genuinely reverential, convinced that they are the most fortunate people in the world to have such leaders.
Here in the West, we’re bombarded by advertising from all directions. We have the internet, spouting what are supposed to be new ideas but is, in reality, becoming more of an echo chamber each day. We have commercials on tv, radio, Youtube, Facebook, in the movies, on top of buildings and along our roads and railway lines. We’re awash with it all, to the point where we’re blasé about the whole thing.
However, in North Korea, the advertising is narrow, focussed with a laser-like intensity on one thing. Keeping Kim Jong Un in power. It was truly fascinating to watch the power of advertising techniques being used in such a different way than we’re used to. The item they’re being sold is very different to what we’re used to seeing, but the psychological tricks and methods they use are pretty much just the same as ours. People are people.
One day the regime will fall and the borders will open and the way of life in the DPRK will change forever. Until that happens, the 25 million people who live in the bubble of isolation that is life in North Korea will continue to believe the message that is sold to them. Why wouldn’t they? Apparently, they’re the most fortunate people in the world…
I hope you enjoyed this little window into North Korea. Previous posts in this series:
Advertising – North Korean style (1): Where the Leaders are Larger than Life.
Advertising – North Korean Style (2): Where a Picture Says a Thousand Words.
Advertising – North Korean Style (3): Teach the Children Well.
I blogged extensively about my trip on my personal blog, Dancing With Frogs. I took over 3,000 photos while I was there, so it took me around 5 months to slowly work my way through them all and blog about each day.
Here is the first day of the North Korean leg of the trip. This post has all the rules and regulations that we needed to be aware of before we set foot in the country. If you’re really interested, you can simply sit down with a cuppa and scroll your way through the posts and experience the trip as I did. It was a fascinating trip and SO MUCH FUN!
Well, being alone and lost in the forest near an army camp and (what I later found out once I was back in Australia) about 20kms from a Detention Camp mightn’t have been fun, but it was certainly interesting. So was our 6-star hotel in the middle of nowhere.
Running a marathon was never on my Bucket List, but I’ve done it now. Well.. sort of…
Going to the DMZ was absolutely not what any of us expected, thanks to the Gift Shop.
Mingling with the locals? Don’t mind if I do. Dancing with them to celebrate a birthday? Why not? Who wants to eat a meal cooked with petrol? Mmmm… how could you not? It was delicious, and only a little smelly…
Anyway, those links are just a sample, if you’re at all interested. It was a trip to remember!