It Takes a Nation of Slogans

North Korea may be economically poor but it is surely rich with slogans. Some three hundred were recently published in the country. 

Private advertising is still very much circumscribed, and further given the fact that rolling power blackouts that occur in virtually every area outside of the capital, slogans, songs, and posters remain key means of delivering ideological content in North Korea.

Kim Jong-il spent much of his life trying to perfect unreformable genres which were reliant on electricity (imagine a love story about a married couple and a dam construction project), but he was also highly attentive to slogan content. North Koreans today need to be attentive to the linguistic cues there, in part because they give any given person a repertory of politically safe language to which they can retreat during group study sessions, possible interviews with state journalists, etc.

A good example I recently saw was the return of North Korean athletes from the Asian Games. Getting off the plane from Incheon, the team was expected to deplane in front of a swarm of cameras and several of the country’s top leaders. The slogans shouted by the atheletes, seemingly spontaneously, were in fact word-for-word the slogans which were posted on the airport tarmac just behind the assembled throng. (In this case it was ‘long live the ryongdoja [General/supreme leader] Kim Jong-un’, taking the honorifics to a new height). When one is returning to the North from the presumably capitalism-tainted South, these things are to be taken extremely seriously.

This isn’t to say that it’s all for external show or internal control. Reminding people that the country is marching forward with new verve toward mushroom production is a means of reinforcing that the edible fungus research sector is going to continue to get its funding, just as Kim Jong-un’s on-site inspections to fishing facilities assures people in the cities that someone is working on their protein supply.

There are also slogans about inter-Korean relations, as this is the time of year that North Korea tends to make overtures to the South — whether this is a cynical means of trying to split the US-ROK military alliance while extracting financial concessions or a genuine attempt to keep the flame alive that split families may someday reunify is in the eye of the beholder.

Reference reading (in which I am quoted, along the lines above): Richard Lloyd Parry, ‘Food and the US: New Slogans Show North Korea’s Obsessions,’ The Times, 13 February 2015. 

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