"You Are Followers of the Juche Philosophy, So I Can Put My Trust in You"
Reading North Korea's comic book propaganda.
This spring, the comic book world awoke to the earth-shaking news that Superman—the quintessential American superhero—was no longer a U.S. citizen. The revelation came in Action Comics No. 900, published in April, in which the superhero renounced his citizenship after getting the U.S. government into hot water by participating in an Iranian street protest. "I'm tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy," Superman says with gravitas. " 'Truth, justice, and the American way'—it's not enough anymore."
Superman's shift away from his adoptive country suggests that being a crusader for global justice is no longer the simple occupation it once was. There are no such qualms for Gen. Mighty Wing, who is the star of comic books in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The North Korean regime's comics, known locally as gruim-chaek ("picture books"), are mass produced on thin, low-quality paper and distributed widely among the isolated regime's privileged classes. As you might expect, they are unabashedly propagandistic, serving up outlandish plots that help inculcate reverence for Great Leader Kim Il Sung and the regime's perennial battles against imperialists of all stripes.
In Great General Mighty Wing (1994), a sort of Kimilsungist Disney fable, the honeybee general Mighty Wing leads his hive in a successful attack on an alliance of wasps and spiders that are plotting to seize control of the hive's Garden of 1,000 Flowers. Mighty Wing also discovers a way to irrigate the garden and drive up honey production, all while fighting against traitorous internal elements and the wasps' secret air-borne "missile"—a bow and arrow. Mirroring the action, the margin of each page bears a revolutionary aphorism, ranging from the homely ("Happiness seeks out the home where laughter blooms") to the paranoid ("Never think of the enemy as a lamb—always consider him a jackal"). The more militant the sayings get, the less comfortably they sit alongside the brightly colored, child-friendly insect characters.
Blizzard in the Jungle (2001) is set in an unnamed African country, where a plane carrying North Korean agents is brought down in the jungle by gangsters eager to get their hands on a briefcase full of "secret documents." Using the wisdom of Kim Il Sung's revolutionary juche ideology, and enriched by the power of Korean-grown ginseng, hero Kim Yeong-hwan leads survivors to safety. The North Koreans are depicted as natural leaders ("You are followers of the juche philosophy, so I can put my trust in you," one of the natives gushes), and two Americans who break off from the collective in typical individualistic fashion are devoured by crocodiles. "I saw this in a movie once," one says as they tread off down their river to their doom.
Heinz Insu Fenkl, a professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz who has translated a number of North Korean comics, says they are interesting for the insights they offer into the "psychological infrastructure" of North Koreans: the daily diet of propaganda that conditions even well-educated citizens to love and revere their leaders. Many of the comics also represent a revival of Korean folk culture and history, including retellings of famous episodes from Korea's dynastic history and the Communists' heroic struggle against Japanese imperialism. "What the North Koreans are doing in comics is parallel to what South Korea and China are doing in film, which is going back and re-imagining their history," he says.
They also grapple with contemporary realities. The plot of Mighty Wing refers to the desperate drought and famine that ravaged the country around the time the book was published. "The ironic effect is that [the comics] made me much more sympathetic to the condition of ordinary North Koreans," Fenkl says. "The comic books are reflecting things that are contemporary social reality."
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.