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Summer Vacation in North Korea

My colleague Edward Mears of Dentsu Sports America decided to take a trip to North Korea this past summer. He was nice enough to take some time to share his photos along with thoughts on propaganda / advertising and creativity in the DPRK.

You can check out the Flickr set of Edward’s trip to North Korea here. Full interview after the jump.

“Over my summer vacation I was lucky enough to travel to North Korea, the most secretive and reclusive nation on earth, and a land devoid of corporate advertising (the non-political kind at least). It was one of the most fascinating and unforgettable trips I have ever taken… While it is certainly true that North Korea is one of the most repressive governments of the modern era, there were some slivers of creativity that I found…”

How did you end up in North Korea?
I minored in Korean studies during university and have always had an interest in the politics/history of the Korean peninsula.  I have made it over to South Korea numerous times, but have always been curious about life up in the North. Furthermore, I really wanted to form my own opinions about North Korea and I have always felt that there is nothing more immersive or informative than first hand experience.

Is there any advertising in North Korea? How about propaganda? Did anything stand out in particular?
While there was no advertising, there certainly was an abundance of propaganda.  Since I do not speak Korean, it was a bit difficult to understand much of the propaganda I saw, much of it centered around the deceased president of the country, Kim Il Sung, who was the first president of the North Korea and still holds that title even though he is officially deceased.  His face and likeness could be found all over the otherwise grey city, and he still plays a very central role in the lives of all North Korean citizens even to this day.  However, of all the propaganda I saw, the thing that stood out most to me was that there was very little (if almost no) propaganda with the likeness or namesake of the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il (Kim Il Sung’s son).  He was suspiciously absent from most of the propaganda I saw, which was rather curious.  I was not able to ask our guide about this, however, so I am not sure exactly why this might have been.

Did you see any propaganda that gave you ideas about techniques that could be utilized in mainstream advertising?
While the propaganda itself was rather straightforward and unimaginative (rather similar to what you would have seen in the Soviet Union or China in the mid 20th century), the fact that there was nothing else competing with the propaganda really made it stand out.  Because there was no other sort of ‘advertising’ in the country, the (very colorful) propaganda really stood out against the grey skyline.  That sort of contrast may be hard to replicate in the west, but did have quite the impact on me and other visitors to the country.

When people think of North Korea, they think of a very repressive environment. What were some examples of creativity that you encountered that surprised or inspired you?
While it is certainly true that North Korea is one of the most repressive governments of the modern era, there were some slivers of creativity that I found.  The most amazing of which was the Arirang Mass Games, which is probably the must-see event for tourists visiting the country and unlike anything I have ever experienced before.  The Arirang Mass games are generally referred to as a mass gymnastics display, but to call it that really takes away from the scope of the performance.  The Mass Games take place in the May Day Stadium, which is the largest stadium on earth with a capacity of 150,000.   Over 100,000 North Korean citizens and students participate in the games, which is a 1.5 hour long gymnastics demonstration that incorporates stories about the country’s foundation as well as certain Korean cultural aspects.  The centerpiece of games is a human mosaic that consists of 30,000 students each holding large colored cards that they then change on order from a flag captain, essentially creating the world’s largest LED screen.  The changing of the cards would produce massive mosaic pictures pertaining to the history and life in North Korea.  Many of the mosaics featured scrolling text and other animations as well as depictions of the great leader Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.  I have never seen anything so impressive before in person and it is worth looking at videos online to get a fair idea of what exactly this performance looked like. This video gives a good brief idea of what the event was like.

What brands actually exist there? Is there an awareness of Western brands?
While our guides were certainly aware of some Western brands, they are pretty much non-existent in North Korea.  Most of the stores we were taken too had only domestically produced goods alongside some Chinese brands as well.  These were just at shops that were preapproved for foreigners to visit and it is likely that stores that cater to the general population offer even less in terms of foreign produced goods.   The clothes most citizens of Pyongyang wore was very bland and unimaginative, mostly comprising of simple suits for men and dark pants and dress shirts for women.  I did not see any recognizable clothing brands the entire time I was there.  Even items such as blue jeans are generally forbidden in North Korea because of their association with America and the West.  However, we did manage to find Coca-Cola (albeit having been produced in China) in one of the cafes we visited, but we were told this was the only place in Pyongyang that served the beverage.  To be honest, I was a bit surprised to find it there at all.

How did the citizens respond to you as a Westerner? Did they have any questions for you? What did they seem to know of your culture?
Most of the local population we encountered varied from timid to disinterested when we tried to interact with them.  Part of this is most certainly due to the language barrier, but it was also a bit strange at the same time.  In my other travels to countries in Asia, I have found that foreigners are often met with fascination and excitement, especially in countries that are not used to having many foreign visitors.  I hardly saw any of that same fascination amongst the North Koreans, which made me think that maybe they have been coached about how to interact with foreigners – though this is just my own personal opinion.

What’s the exchange rate like?
Surprisingly, foreign visitors are not allowed to make transactions in the local currency, the North Korean Won.  This is primarily a way for the North to get its hands on hard currency but to also limit how foreign visitors can spend their money in the DPRK.  All of the stores and restaurants we visited accepted USD, Euro, Chinese RMB, and Japanese Yen, with the Euro being the ‘primary’ foreign currency in the North.  We were able to purchase North Korean Won but only as a ‘souvenir’ in extremely limited quantities.  By not allowing us to have North Korean Won there is little worry of us buying something that is not already pre-approved for sale to foreigners.

Did you bring back any souvenirs? Is it true that Kim Jong Il has his own line of sunglasses?
To be honest there was not much that we were allowed to buy in the country, so unfortunately I did not bring back many souvenirs.  Of the few things I did buy, a collection of North Korean Won (money) and a few pins commemorating the Arirang Mass Games were my favorite.  I also bought some Ginseng-based cosmetic products for my girlfriend.  Korea (and North Korea in particular) is known throughout the world for the quality of its ginseng, and my North Korean guide told me that I had to get these products for my girlfriend.  I am not sure about Kim Jong Il’s sunglasses, but I know that we (foreigners) would never be able to buy them if such a line did exist.

You can view more photos from Edward’s trip to North Korea here.

  • Timothy

    Terrific observations and excellent video.

    With only one shop selling soda, demonstrates to me the power of Coca Cola. And if they make it there, then wouldn’t it also be at other locations? A manufacturing plant for only one outlet?

    I’m curious about the actual reasoning behind this decision to allow it. Compassion for any tourist with a sugar addition or to make them feel at home? Perhaps it is to leave an impression of a healthy country? Makes me wonder about their diabetes statistics.

    Since there were few souvenirs to buy, tourism doesn’t seem to be a major profit motivator. More of a great PR campaign which possible may increase their exporting business.

    Excellent piece of writing.