View a slideshow of the poster children of North Korea
America talks the talk; Pyongyang walks the walk. At least according to Kim Jong Il's domestic propaganda machine. In countless posters displayed in city centers, North Korean resolve is contrasted with American spinelessness. "If we say we do something, we do it," a towering Korean People's Army soldier shouts in one poster as he slams his clenched fist down on the continental United States. "We don't utter empty words!" Other posters depict North Korean fighter planes and missiles destroying the U.S. Capitol while helpless American soldiers, mere spindly, insectlike creatures, are hoisted effortlessly on bayonets or squashed under missiles.
Such violent imagery isn't confined to posters. Even North Korean math textbooks draw on the vocabulary of military might: "Three People's Army soldiers rubbed out thirty American bastards. What was the ratio of the soldiers who fought?" Dictionaries and schoolbooks encourage North Korean citizens to speak of foreigners as beasts with "muzzles," "snouts," and "paws," who "croak" instead of dying. In a chilling illustration from a recent North Korean art magazine, a child with a toy machine gun stands before a battered snowman; the caption reads, "The American bastard I killed."
This triumphalism might seem irrational in view of North Korea's small size and obsolete military hardware. But according to the country's propaganda, the pure-bloodedness and homogeneity of the Korean race make the North's army a uniquely tight-knit and formidable fighting force. This way of thinking reflects an official ideology that many outsiders misperceive as communist but in reality belongs on the far right and not the far left of the ideological spectrum. No, I'm not referring to the pseudo-doctrine of North Korean "Juche" thought, a mishmash of humanist bromides (such as "man is the master of all things") that has never had the slightest effect on policymaking. I'm referring to the ideology that the Juche smokescreen is meant to hide from the outside world: a paranoid nationalism that has informed the regime's actions since the late 1940s.
Poster Children of the Hermit Kingdom
An exclusive FP slide show from inside North Korea's propaganda machine.
This worldview is not set out, at least not straightforwardly, in the writings of North Korea's father-and-son dictators, which are more often praised than read. Yet it informs all of the country's mass propaganda, most of which can easily be accessed at the North Korea Resource Center in Seoul. This material is varied in form if not in content: Over eight years, I've examined everything from nightly news reports and television dramas to animated cartoons and war movies; from the glossy-papered Rodong Sinmun, the Workers' Party organ, to women's magazines printed on gray, low-quality paper; from short stories and historical novels to dictionaries and school textbooks (these last printed, semi-legibly, on the worst paper of all); from reproductions of wall posters to photographs of monuments and statues. There is no way of knowing how much of this material is produced every year, but so significant is the propaganda apparatus that it was one of the few North Korean institutions that did not miss a beat even during the catastrophic famine of the 1990s.
North Korea's ideology is not merely a nationalist-tinged communism of the old Yugoslav variety. It is a race-based worldview utterly at odds with the teachings of Marx and Lenin. And yet, the outside world continues in the illusion that North Korea is a hard-line Stalinist state. True, the nation's first leader, Kim Il Sung, was installed by Soviet occupiers after World War II. It is also true that the personality cult of Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il bears superficial resemblance to the cults of Stalin and Mao. Yet look closer, and it's clear just how different North Korean ideology is. Not for nothing was the country almost as isolated during Soviet times as it is now in the post-communist world.
North Korea's race-centric ideology was inspired by that of the fascist Japanese who ruled the peninsula from 1910 until the end of World War II. Having been taught by their colonizers to regard themselves as part of a superior Yamato race, the North Koreans in 1945 simply carried on the same mythmaking in a Koreanized form. This can be summarized in a single sentence: The Korean people are too pure-blooded, and so too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader. This paranoid nationalism might sound crude and puerile, but it is only in this ideological context that the country's distinguishing characteristics, which the outside world has long found so baffling, make perfect sense. Up close, North Korea is not Stalinist -- it's simply racist.