North Korea is a country living under the watchful eyes of its great leaders – millions of portraits of them.
In every home, office and school and in every public place hang pictures of the deceased former heads of state, Kim Jong–il and Kim Il–sung, a constant reminder of the Kim dynasty and their power over the country since the DPRK was first established in 1948.
'The North Korean posters that got me arrested for espionage'
Je Son-lee, a defector who fled the country in 2011, explains that the two men are now treated like gods: “That’s why we have to have their portraits, in order to be with them all the time. It’s almost equivalent to having the cross or the statues of Jesus at churches,” he says.
Jun Yoo-sung, who defected from the DPRK in 2005, says that images of the Kims are considered sacred: “You should respect more than anything else,” he explains.
To maintain their sacred status, images of the leaders are rigorously policed: regulations state portraits must hang from a wall with nothing else on it – no other decorations are allowed – in a prominent and central position in the room. Frames must also be hung high up, so that no one can stand higher than the great leaders. The only rooms that are exempt from these rules are in hotels, Je says.
Citizens are also obligated to clean the pictures at least every few days. In schools, the “secretary of ideology” inspects to make sure frames are cleaned regularly, and in every neighbourhood a member from the Workers’ Party is often assigned to check on every household.
“If dust is found in those portraits, you’re subject to pay a fine – the thicker the dust is the more you have to pay,” Je says.
‘I began to look at them with fear’
North Koreans learn to revere and fear the faces looming over them from a young age.
“The first thing I can remember my parents said about the portraits was: ‘You should take very good care of [them]. You will get into big trouble if they fall off by mistake,” says Jun. “Because my parents warned me so much about those portraits, I began to look at [them] with fear.”
Je says he was taught to praise the pictures as he was able to talk, and he grew up believing the portraits were watching him.
“Of course, those perceptions change as you grow up. I stopped thinking that they were always looking at me and watching my every move. I began to realise that they were just photos.”
Some defectors make the comparison to philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s design for a British prison, called the panopticon, a space created where inmates are watched at all times, as a substitute for brute force or coercion.
“It’s simply panopticism – to show that the leader is looking after (and over) everyone and is ever-present in their lives,” explained a source who currently works within the DPRK but who wished to remain anonymous.
According the Andrei Lankov’s book North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea, every newlywed couple in the country receives a pair of portraits – made by government-approved artists at the Mansudae Art Studio – on their wedding day, gifted by their district’s Workers Party office.
Cults of admiration
North Korea propaganda expert Gianluca Spezza compares the omnipresence of the former leaders to countries such as Thailand or Saudi Arabia, where the dynastic ruling families are also treated with a reverence bordering on worship, and the crime of insulting the king is punished harshly.
Spezza also points to Marxist-Leninist states throughout history, who have similarly also built a tradition of political reverence, from the veneration of Fidel Castro in Cuba to the all-consuming worship enjoyed by Mao Zedong in China or Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania.
“Generally, it helps to visualise a figure in order to remind people of [their] presence,” Spezza says.
But he also points out it’s not only autocratic countries that that revere images of their leaders, giving the example of the US and the UK. “The difference is, all these places have a space for respect and ‘worship’ of authority in public places and spaces,” he says. “North Korea went a step further, making this an important gesture to be nurtured in private spaces, and even on the physical body of the individual, with the [use of] badges and pins.”
Stories of everyday citizens – often children – dying to save beloved pictures from floods or fire are common in state media.
“When a house was set on fire, some child was found to have been burnt to death holding on to those portraits,” says Jun. “Of course, such incidents are used for North Korean propaganda.”
But attitudes could be changing. Defectors say the portraits have begun shifting from genuine symbols of patriotism to just another of the many obligations citizens must carry out in service to the state.
North Korea's Kim dynasty: the making of a personality cult
Strict rules about folding images or desecrating images of the leader are increasingly being ignored in the interests of day-to-day practicality, sources say.
“It’s considered to be disrespectful,” said a source inside the country who asked to remain anonymous. “However there are plenty of times it [happens]: bank notes get folded, newspapers get folded. It isn’t supposed to happen but it is very common.”
“When the regime was popular, people thought of the portraits dearly,” said Jun. “But, now they seem to treat them as pieces of annoying frames that you would get rid of if you were allowed to.”
A version of this article first appeared on NK News
Willem van der Bijl had an office in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, until in 2011 he was declared persona non grata. After twenty-four visits to the country, the North Korean government had enough of him. The Dutch stamp collector was placed behind North Korean bars in solitary confinement. He was interrogated for 15 hours a day for two weeks before eventually being expelled from the country. It not only put an end to Van der Bijl’s trips to North Korea, it also marked the end of his collection of North Korean propaganda posters.
Van der Bijl’s fascination with printed material began when he was six years old. He collected post stamps from all over the world and by the age of 21 had started his own stamp shop in Utrecht, the Netherlands. On one of his visits to a stamp exhibition in 1998 he met the director of the North-Korean stamp cooperation. They stayed in touch and after Van der Bijl bought a large quantity of North Korean stamps in Milan the director invited him on a trip to North Korea.
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Initially, he wasn’t interested. “The country didn’t appeal to me.” But he changed his mind, accepted the invitation and travelled all around the country as a tourist. It wasn’t love at first sight: “After the first trip I was totally done with the country. Yes, it is intriguing, but at the same time you experience an enormous amount of pressure.”
Shortly after his return to the Netherlands Van der Bijl starts making new plans to go to North Korea. “In a way, the country gets under your skin.” In the end, he went back 23 times.
Van der Bijl is not only interested in North Korean stamps. The propaganda posters he sees in the communist country fascinate him: “You see them in train stations and in the streets. They communicate a message from the regime.” The posters are printed in limited editions, because they are used as propaganda material. When the regime wants to send another message to the people, they change the posters. “So I started asking around where I could buy the old posters.” With that, the largest North Korean propaganda poster collection in the world began.
The biggest problem was how to export them to the Netherlands: “I had to bribe a lot of people to get the posters through customs every time.” To solve the export and visa problem, Van der Bijl and his North Korean business partner started a branch office in Pyongyang. By that time there were only seven foreign branch offices in North Korea. Their office was a hotel room and they had to hire two government secretaries who kept an eye on them at the same time.
With the branch office, doing business was easier. “While I was working in the Netherlands, my business partner and the secretaries travelled around North Korea to look for propaganda posters. Twice a year I visited them to choose from their collection, so I could take the best ones home.” Sometimes he only took six posters, sometimes more than a hundred.
On every visit to North Korea Van der Bijl was followed by the secret service. In addition, all the phone calls they made from their office were tapped. “They knew what I was doing. Some said: ‘Round eye’ is exporting our beautiful art, others felt that I was exposing things to the outside world that were meant to stay in North Korea.”
On the last day of what would be his last visit to North Korea, in 2011, Van der Bijl was arrested and kept in solitary confinement for two weeks. The interrogations were tough: “For 15 hours a day, they asked me all kinds of details from all my trips to the country. Then I found out that they have been following me on every visit,” Van der Bijl explains. He’s not sure why he was arrested: “Maybe because I took some photos of a train, I don’t know. They never told me. I was never scared that they would lock me up for 30 years. I thought maybe two or three years.”
After two weeks in prison, he was given an offer: confess guilt and ask for leniency. He took the offer immediately. “I signed a document in which I confessed that I spread bad things about North Korea, that I stimulated people to flee the country and that I took spy photos. Besides that I had to publicly apologize for my behaviour.” That confession was the only path to freedom. “The downside is that I will never be able to visit North Korea. But if the regime collapses, I will be one of the first to visit the country.”
In all his 24 visits Van der Bijl collected more than a thousand North Korean posters. It is the biggest collection of North Korean propaganda posters in the world. A couple of months ago, Van der Bijl made the collection available to the Modern East Asia Research Centre at the University of Leiden. “Because I’m persona non grata in North Korea, my collection is finished.”
According to Koen de Ceuster, lecturer in Modern History of Korea at the University of Leiden, “It is a unique collection. All the posters are printed in limited numbers, because they were replaced so often by a new message from the government.” The oldest poster in Van der Bijl’s collection was printed and distributed in 1952, the most recent in 2011. Van der Bijl has just finished digitally scanning over a thousand posters. He is now working on an online database where the posters will be available for researchers and academics. The database is expected to be finished by June 2016.
Tessa Hoogvliet is a foreign news journalist with the program VPRO Bureau Buitenland. All images courtesy Willem van der Bijl.