Books / Reviews


Picturing North Korean propaganda

by Glyn Ford and Soyoung Kwon

Japan’s comic craze was first documented for the West with the publication of Frederick Schodt’s “Manga Manga, The World of Japanese Comics” (1983). Since then, the production and consumption of manga and anime — its moving picture equivalent — have spread to China and the Republic of Korea. More recently, on the production side, North Korea has emerged as a destination for “outsourcing” the heavy manual labor element of both manga and anime, as illustrated by French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle’s introspective graphic novel “Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea” (2005). Almost nothing, however, has been written on the indigenous manga industry in North Korea.

South Korea has manhwa-chaek; in North Korea, comics are known as gruim-chaek or “picture books.” As in Japan, they are targeted at the younger generations. The themes reflect North Korean politics and contemporary history: anti-U.S., anti-Japanese and anti-capitalist. They resemble the unauthorized versions of “Tintin” comics in China, which in the 1970s and ’80s transformed the bourgeois boy detective into an agent of class struggle.

According to North Korean President Kim Il Sung’s “Theses on Socialist Education” (1977), socialist education is “a weapon for ideological and cultural training” and its continuation outside of formal schooling is essential through social activities to revolutionize and intellectualize society within a class-conscious environment.

Comic reading in North Korea, like all else, is a collective experience with the swapping, borrowing and exchange within and between networks.

North Korean comics are printed on poor quality paper, normally in black and white and occasionally monochromatic blue, brown or green. They are marooned in time with old-fashioned clothes, furniture, houses and cars. The dialogue echoes around strong nationalist and ideological themes, which requires in the reader a strong background in the culture and history of the Korean Workers Party and its paramount leader Kim Il Sung. Plots are stereotyped, with good and evil pre-sorted by nationality and social origin. Heroes and heroines sacrifice their lives battling U.S. imperialists, Japanese collaborators, South Korean stooges and former landowners.

The message is simple and clear: North Korean people — soldiers, students, and children — are all prepared to sacrifice their lives for the leader and the nation.

Here, we look at 10 North Korean comics published 2001-2004, bought in bookshops in Pyongyang and Nampo, and distinguished from another essential series of comics illustrating Korea’s deep history.

Three major themes are identified. First and most common is a “James Bond”-style spy story where North Korean special agents penetrate a South Korean army base under the control of the U.S. military. The North Korean agents discover, subvert and destroy secret plans by the United States during the “Fatherland Liberation War” (The Korean War), saving the Korean people and the nation. Comics with such a theme include “A Special Operation,” “They Have Returned” (2001), “The Foggy Island” (2002), “Operation ‘Ryu-sung’ ” (2002), “The Bullet Shields” (2003) and “Fights Under the Water” (2004).

Some of these plots have the U.S. military ready to use biological and chemical weapons against the North. This echoes real concerns of the early ’50s when the U.S. was accused by an independent commission of experts, including the eminent communist chemist and sinologist from Cambridge University, Dr. Joseph Needham, of developing and deploying chemical and bacteriological weapons during the Korean War in collaboration with a Japanese scientist who served during World War II in Harbin’s Japanese germ and chemical warfare Unit 731.

In the comic versions, courageous North Korean People’s Army Special Forces fool the American commanders, reconnoiter and infiltrate the WMD base, and expose U.S. and Japanese perfidy to the world community, thus, fulfilling their duty to the “great Comrade General.”

In these comics, Americans are violent and cunning warmongers, Japanese are contemptible opportunists, and South Koreans are greedy and sneaky American puppets. While the North Korean hero dedicates himself to the nation and sacrifices his life by blowing himself up along with his enemies, American scientists test bacteriologic weapons on children and the elderly, American marines attempt to rape young Korean women, and U.S. tank commanders destroy Korean villages.

In one case, an American officer threatens a revolutionary’s 7-year-old son with “execution by poking his eye out and tearing the body into pieces.”

The second theme consists of resistance struggles, during the Japanese occupation, against the exploitation of farmers and workers by the Japanese and their Korean collaborators. As some comics have multiple themes, this anti-Japanese theme is projected in “A Special Operation,” “A Story of Three Bows” (2002), “They Have Returned” and “The Foggy Island.”

Ruthless Japanese kidnap and violate Korean girls, separating their family and lovers, kill and rob Korean peasants, and force Koreans to work to support the Japanese fighting in the Pacific War. The theme boosts strong nationalist sentiment and hostility toward Japan, reminding North Koreans of their debt to the present regime that brought them national liberation and independence.

The third theme is the battle against internal subversion by counter-revolutionaries as seen in “The Dark Shadow on a Full Moon Day” (2001), “The Bullet Shields” and “True Identity of the ‘Pear Blossom’ ” (2004). The plot has former landowners, capitalists and Japanese collaborators agitating to provoke chaos and disintegration in North Korean society, hoping to have their confiscated land and wealth restored under a post-communist regime. Acting as CIA spies and saboteurs, they carry out various schemes: They set fire to cooperative farms, and attempt to derail trains, sabotage North Korea’s economy and wreck project tests in the defense industry.

All these attempts are defeated by smart, brave North Korean soldiers or students who report their suspicions to the authorities. Revolutionary awareness of the people and class struggles are accentuated throughout.

One comic has a “missionary” story. “The Snowstorm in a Tropical Forest” (2001) is set in the African jungle where a commercial plane crashes. The extraordinary bravery and leadership of two North Korean survivors saves the group and converts the foreigners — including a priest — into believers in juche (North Korea’s attitude of self-reliance). The story ends with the whole group chanting “long live the great leader Kim Il Sung and the great leader Kim Jong Il” and the priest abandoning God for the benevolence of the Great Leader.

North Korean comics are no joke. They are earthy, littered with swearwords and replete with brutality and violence associated with Americans and Japanese. They are heavily didactic, based on either propaganda through entertainment or teaching national values through illustration.

To North Koreans, these comics clearly play a role in reasserting their national pride and identity and reinforcing support for the regime. To outsiders, they provide a window into the North Korean history, culture and society.

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