"You Are Followers of the Juche Philosophy, So I Can Put My Trust in You"
Reading North Korea's comic book propaganda.
Like all North Korean artwork, comics are produced according to revolutionary principles developed in the 1960s and 1970s by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, and many of the writers and artists are drawn from the prestigious Kim Il Sung Academy in Pyongyang. "All the production is controlled by the state. Even things that are just categorized as entertainment have to go through the state filter," says Fenkl, who has collected a range of comics during trips to China and from colleagues who have visited North Korea. The principles of composition, similar to the Socialist Realism of the Stalinist era, dictate form as well as content. "The style tends to be fairly representational. … You don't find high fantasy elements," says Fenkl.
There's also a notable dearth of humor. Fenkl, who has read more than 200 of the comics, says he has never seen one that would qualify as "light comedy." Andrew Holloway, in his memoir A Year in Pyongyang, made a similar observation about North Korean television in the 1980s: "One thing you do not get is comedy," he notes drily. "Cultivation of the comic outlook on life could have a very damaging effect on people's attitude toward the Juche Idea."
Despite their low production quality, Fenkl says the aesthetic is well-developed, similar to the comic books he remembers reading as a child in South Korea in the 1960s. Others have a surprising level of conceptual complexity. The Secret of Frequency A (1994) tells the story of a North Korean "elite science youth squad" that teams up to help an African nation rid itself of a mysterious plague of locusts. The cause of the plague? A coterie of nefarious American agents—including a Nazi war criminal and a buck-toothed Japanese acoustical engineer—have utilised a particular frequency of the note A to advance imperialist interests in Africa. The African setting, a feature of many of the books, reflects the fact that North Korea once had—and in some cases still maintains—strong relations with many African nations. Intriguingly, the conspiracy in Frequency also cribs from a fringe theory, advanced in this article by Leonard G. Horowitz, claiming that the standard 440Hz A tuning introduced before World War II was an "imposed frequency" that created "greater aggression, psychosocial agitation, and emotional distress" among the population. Fenkl says that it's surprising how much research appears to have gone into the comic's Tintin-esque plot.
North Korea even maintains a sideline in crude political satire, such as General Loser and the Gnats(2005), a collection of episodes poking fun at U.S. President George W. Bush. In one section described by Fenkl, Bush asks members of his Cabinet about his popularity. He is informed that people named Bush are changing their names to express displeasure at his presidency. The president is also shocked to learn that a number of soldiers who took his name to honor his leadership only did so after being bribed. (It will come as no surprise that the "American Empire" came in dead last on North Korea's most recent global happiness index.)
But despite the heavy-handed North-Korea-as-global-savior theme, the comics do seem to be genuinely popular. "Certainly when I've bought them, my interpreter, driver, and everyone else likes to borrow and read them," says Glyn Ford, author of North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival. Some are even pretty entertaining. "They are comics, not the Works of Kim Il Sung, after all."
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.