How to Read a Closed Book: The Propaganda Signs of North Korea, from Google Earth

It is the world’s most closed and inscrutible place, yet much of the character of North Korea is clearly legible from outer space.  This exceptionally politicized and controlled society — which  excludes nearly all foreign forms of mass communication and offers relatively little of its own —  has the jarring habit of posting enormous propaganda characters all over the countryside.  Some of the characters on these signs are larger than houses:

[Click images to see in full size.]

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One can see them, often on hillsides, near small villages …

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… in blighted industrial towns …

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… along roadsides,…

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… beside the ocean,…

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… and bolted to the sides of mountains.

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Like the presence of the state itself, they seem to be everywhere.  The map below shows just those propaganda signs  that can be seen from outer space.  Most  of them were  found by the blogger Curtis Melvin, whose remarkable collection of placemarks, “North Korea  Uncovered,” identifies thousands of economic, cultural, and military sites on Google Earth.

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It seems that no  village is  too small to have one.

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Day after day,  a few  people  in these remote villages  read these characters, and probably little else.

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Do the characters try to persaude the people in these villages  that they are happy and prosperous?

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Sometimes, one banner must not be enough.

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How many people could possibly read some of these signs?

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In most cases, we can’t read what the banners say because of the angle of the satellite photograph, but sometimes, one of the signs will cast a legible shadow.  Sometimes, the slogans are etched into hillsides.  It almost seems as if there’s a slogan etched onto every dam in North Korea.  What  do they tell us about the character of this country, at least as the state permits it to be expressed?

A few of the messages are mundane.

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Most, however, have an ideological message:

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Some reinforce devotion  to the god-kings …

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… or  total obedience to the state.

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Some seem to acknowledge the lean times.

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Others try to raise hope that they will soon end.

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Still others try to instill nationalist pride. This slogan, which is visible in several places, has very un-Marxist connotations, but then again, North Korea’s ideology is less Marxist and more imperial than most westerners realize.sign-40-powerful-empire.jpg

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In a country  where authority cannot be questioned, they can still be mocked … by nature …

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… by their own words,…

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… by their surroundings,…

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… and often,  by the dead:

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The high hillsides where North Korean propaganda banners tend to be placed are also favored sites for the burial of the dead.  Koreans bury their dead under round burial mounds.  Ordinarily, they tend the graves carefully.  Whole families visit them on certain holidays.  Perhaps it’s natural to see a certain number of graves on any high hillside near a town or village.

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This, however, seems very unnatural — large, tightly packed clusters of untended, sometimes sunken  graves:

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So many dead.  It is as if the signs are  warning the spirits  not to think  subversive thoughts.

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Such  large clusters of graves  probably don’t represent a natural  mortality rate.  These  may well be  places where the dead were buried during the Great Famine.  One survivor, a former teacher, recounted those times while  at a hearing on Capitol Hill (see update to this post).  She was pressed into service gathering the dead from the streets of Sinuiju each night.  She told of how she and her students  would  gather the corpses and pile them onto carts.  They hauled the bodies to an abandoned warehouse, where they were stored until they were trucked out of town for burial.

Could any  slogan be so literally besieged by death without being transformed into an ironic epitaph for  a failed state that has ceased  to provide for its people?

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