From Propaganda Art to Juche Ideology: First Impressions of North Korea

Posted on June 12, 2012 by

We have just returned from North Korea (or more formally known as Democratic Republic of Korea) after spending the past five days making our way around the capital of Pyongyang to the ancient city of Kaesong and the DMZ border with South Korea. Although we’ve barely scraped the surface of the country, we have taken a peek into this isolated nation and experienced for ourselves life in the hermit kingdom. Here, we’re sharing with you some of our first impressions of North Korea — from the cultural to the daily-life quirks.

A surprising sense of normality

The biggest surprise for me is just how normal everything feels in DPRK — the streets are extremely clean and safe, roads are wide though empty, and people go about their daily business just like every other city in Asia. It is nothing like how North Korea is projected on international media (with names like Axis of Evil). Besides the socialist-style attire and grim-looking buildings, there is really little to remind you that this is the country that’s headlining the news worldwide, and often, in a negative light. Although we were not allowed to go anywhere unescorted and thus (as some would say) shown just certain aspects of the country, it was still apparent that Pyongyang is indeed a well laid-out city just like any other (except for the few military and propaganda reminders).

View of Pyongyang from the top of Juche Tower

North Koreans are as curious of us as we are of them

Since the end of World War II, DPRK has closed its doors to the outside world. Only local channels are shown on TV, there is no internet anywhere in the country (unless you’re am ambassador or approved journalist) and few foreign tourists visit the country each year (around 2,500 Western tourists not including the Chinese). North Koreans are taught to think that anything foreign is a threat – yet, we were surprised to find how our local guides were as curious about our cultures and countries as we were of theirs. When we smiled and waved at locals, they would often smile back and look upon with curiosity. On the subway, we even interacted with people, showing them our photos and using sign language to talk to them.

Children curious about us

Worshippers of their supreme leaders

North Korea was founded by Kim Il Sung, who was named their “eternal president” after his death. Kim Il Sung was the founder of the Juche political ideology. Translated to mean the “spirit of self-reliance”, the Juche idea is based on the belief that man is the master of everything and decides everything. After meeting North Koreans and talking to our guides on a deeper level, I then realize the extent of worship that they have for their supreme leaders. They talk about their supreme leaders with much respect and admiration, almost as if they are of heavenly status.In my opinion, Juche is akin to a mix of religion and political system, with the eternal president Kim Il Sung as their deity. In fact, Juche is one of the largest religions in the world, with over 19 million followers. At Mansu Hill, where the larger-than-life statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il stand, visitors are required to bow in front of the leaders.

Statues of their leaders

The deepest subway system in the world

Pyongyang’s metro system feels literally like a time machine. Started in 1972, the stations and trains haven’t been updated since. Bought over from Berlin after the wall fell, the trains feature green suede seats, old shiny wooden carriages, and shiny steel railings. The two lines run for over 17 stations, although we only rode the metro over 6 stops. Each station has a different theme, with impressive mosaic propaganda art and sparkling ´60s chandeliers to add to the atmosphere. It is also one of the cheapest in the world to ride, at only 5 Korean Won(about $0.03) per ticket.

The Pyongyang Metro

Impressive socialist-style architecture

The squares of Pyongyang are often flanked by massive grey blocks of socialist-style government buildings adorning images of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as well as the red-and-blue flag of DPRK. Monuments such as the Juche Tower and Workers’ Party Monument are tall, enormous and extremely impressive in scale and grandeur. Carvings depicting workers are results of world-class workmanship. In the heart of Pyongyang stands an Arch de Triumph that’s similar to the French version but even bigger.

Socialist monuments

Propaganda everywhere

Every street corner, subway station and government building is adorned with colorful mosaic art and banners promoting the socialist regime. Many of them are symbolic of the Korean Workers’ Party – with the sickle for farming, the brush for education and hammer for the industry.  These posters tend to be graphic, colorful and elaborate. But besides these, there is little else – there are no billboards (only one from the local brand of cars) nor advertising.

Propaganda art

We will be writing more on North Korea shortly, feel free to follow our journey on Twitter with the hashtag #wjdprk and flip through our photo gallery of North Korea.


Disclaimer: This experience was made possible by Koryo Tours but all opinions are my own. 

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About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is the co-founder of WildJunket. As a professional travel writer with a special interest in offgrid destinations and adventure travel, she scours through the world in search for a slice of undiscovered paradise. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Guatemala, swam with sealions in the Galapagos and built a school in Tanzania.

16 Responses to “From Propaganda Art to Juche Ideology: First Impressions of North Korea”

  1. @candacerardon June 12, 2012 10:27 pm #

    What a fascinating post, Nellie. It's great that you and Alberto got this glimpse into life in North Korea, thanks for sharing your initial thoughts and photos. I'm not sure why I'm so drawn to the propaganda art – it just seems so nostalgic in a way, like they're holding onto a specific time in the past.

  2. That Backpacker June 12, 2012 11:22 pm #

    This is one nation I am so intrigued by! It feels so close living here in South Korea, yet so unreachable at the same time. I'm really looking forward to reading more about your experiences there.

  3. Jeremy Head June 12, 2012 10:27 am #

    Did you manage to get away from your minders at all though or was it all totally choreographed? On a different note, I love the artwork! I have a few similar old communist posters I bought in Russia back in 1998… you don't see them anymore now…

    • Nellie December 6, 2012 6:38 am #

      hey Jeremy, that question has been bugging me for awhile. I was wondering about that while I was there, and a lot of readers have asked me that as well. True enough, we were brought around squares and boulevards that were massive, clean and impressive. We were chauffeured from one monument to another and lunched at nice tourist restaurants where waitresses smiled and curtsied. We met military guides who were well-spoken and passionate about their supreme leader and country. There were no beggars or crippled anywhere along the streets.

      But at the same time, we also drove past shabby apartment buildings and parks where locals were seen scrubbing the floor with their bare hands. We took the subway along with hundreds of workers who were more than friendly towards us. We went up to the top of the 170m-high Juche Towernofollow where the city of Pyongyang sprawled. From such a vantage point, we could see decrepit residential areas, dusty alleys and half-constructed buildings tucked within the more prominent high-rise buildings. Even in the border town of Kaesong near DMZ, we could see the lack of infrastructure and maintenance – there were no street lights throughout the city (except at the statue of Kim Il Sung) and the roads were in need of reparation.

      So no, I don't think that everything was choreographed. There are some things that you just can't hide.

  4. Andy Montgomery June 12, 2012 10:47 am #

    Hi Nellie, this is fascinating. Were you able to photograph anything you liked or did you have to ask permission to click each time? What pictures were you able to show the folks on the subway and how did they react? I'll look forward to more of this :)

    • Nellie December 6, 2012 6:50 am #

      hey Andy, we had to get permission before photographing. But most of the time, our guides would tell us beforehand if we could photograph so we didnt feel restricted at all. We showed photos of ourselves on our digital camera to folks on the subway and they all laughed and cheered. It was quite an experience to be able to interact with them so openly.

  5. Shivya June 13, 2012 12:16 am #

    Lucky you Nellie. North Korea is a country that must fascinate anyone who has ever travelled, though your post does make it sound so normal. Waiting to read more about it!

  6. Jeremy Branham June 13, 2012 10:41 pm #

    Wow, this is fascinating. Not many outsiders get to look at North Korea. I wonder if any of them are spying on you and reading your blog now to see what you say. Interesting to read about life there, Juche, and how they have no outside influence. The people there are really kept in darkness. I doubt you will every be able to really talk to people to see how they really feel.

    Nonetheless, great look at life inside of North Korea. Look forward to reading more!

    • Nellie June 13, 2012 10:54 pm #

      hey Jeremy, yes it\’s intriguing yet freakishly eerie at times to think about how an entire country can be kept from the truth (although sometimes I wonder if what we think is the truth is actually the truth). Based on the small amount of North Koreans we met, it\’s evident that they feel very strongly for their country and stand up to what they do – anything from nuclear weapons to anti-American acts. It\’s hard to understand but clearly something that unites them.

    • Nellie June 13, 2012 10:54 pm #

      hey Jeremy, yes it\’s intriguing yet freakishly eerie at times to think about how an entire country can be kept from the truth (although sometimes I wonder if what we think is the truth is actually the truth). Based on the small amount of North Koreans we met, it\’s evident that they feel very strongly for their country and stand up to what they do – anything from nuclear weapons to anti-American acts. It\’s hard to understand but clearly something that unites them.

  7. Emily in Chile June 14, 2012 2:21 am #

    This is incredibly interesting, thanks for sharing!

  8. groundedtraveler June 16, 2012 4:02 am #

    What I cool opportunity. Can't think of much off the beaten tourist track than North Korea. I look forward to reading more about it. The scale of the statues and the paintings is kidn of neat. Everything looks so big, and if there is no other advertising, it must feel quite strange.

  9. Marina K. Villatoro June 7, 2013 12:56 pm #

    I am so curious about what traveling to this country, but I have heard that it is quite hard to enter. I think it’s great you are sharing these photos and info with the world.

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