Korean Buddhists have their heads shaved during a ceremony at Chogye Temple in central Seoul on Friday. Buddha's
official birthday in 2013 will be celebrated on the full moon on May 17 in South
Korea. (KIM JAE-HWANKIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images)
An activist from an anti-North Korea civic group burns a portrait of North's leader Kim Jong-un during a rally in central Seoul in February, after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji.
A sharp-eyed reader pointed out that a summary of my Thursday story on North Korea called its latest rhetoric “postering.” Was this a typo, or what?
Surely you jest.
North Korea’s “Great Successor” – not yet as Dear or as Great as his predecessors – is shrewd enough to think of all the angles. Nuclear threats may ring hollow, and sabre-rattling look lame, but posters!
So far Kim Jong-un has only declared poster war on his own malnourished people, blanketing them with heroic portraits of himself – plump and smiling -- as they go about their daily task of eking out something to eat. But could South Korea withstand a full-on KJU poster attack?
South Korean patriots take a dim view of Kim's efforts, it's true, and some have even burned them. But once southern teenagers caught onto that lawn-clippered hairdo and goofy grin, would PSY’s Gangam style have a chance? Resistance would be futile. Kim isn’t just posturing (er, postering), he’s the real deal.
In fact, he’s already spawned a small industry in satirical images in the West. One of the latest, apparently by the famed hackers, Anonymous, depicts him, not flatteringly, as a Disney-style pig, with a tattoo of Mickey Mouse on his bared stomach.
But Kim is only the latest in a long line of dictators who glorify themselves on walls (and screens) everywhere.
In revolutionary Russia, Vladimir Lenin was displayed in his humble worker’s cap, proudly gesturing next to steaming Soviet factories – and more popularly, in the archtypal “Lenin lives,” pose, pointing forever to the bright future in case anyone had lost his way.
Joseph Stalin showed his softer side, hoisting a plump, blond toddler clutching a Soviet flag, as well as striking a grimly Napoleonic pose on a mocked-up battlefield. And Germany's Adolph Hitler, a master of propaganda, airbrushed his otherwise farcical image to semi-divine in portraits with dramatic religious and patriotic imagery.
Saddam Hussein, one of the cleverest propagandists, had a poster for all reasons and seasons. He was an intrepid desert explorer a pith helmet, a patient teacher surrounded by students, a fierce warrior clutching an AK-47 – and my favourite, a travel promoter, welcoming tourists to Iraq in a florid snowbird-style shirt.
But dictators’ posters have always had a grimmer purpose.
Romania’s deposed (and murdered) dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu was a prime example, reader Costin Manu told me in an email. “He was everywhere! Always in a retouched image/photograph, forever young, before Photoshop ever existed.”
And he added, “it was an interesting psychological and subliminal experiment as one had the feeling that He and the Party were always watching you. It acted as a constant reminder that Big Brother was everywhere and there was no escape. The fear and cowering it generated scarred a whole generation.”
In hermetically sealed North Korea, the print may be mightier than the sword.
Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East, South Asia, the Balkans and Northern Ireland. She has won both national and international awards, and collaborated on two Emmy-winning films based on her work.
South Korean military conscripts may have dreamed a
dream of defending the homeland, but their life is one of snow shovelling and
thwarted love - at least in a parody of "Les Misérables" starring real airmen
that has become an Internet hit.
The opera-style video "Les Militaribles" was made by 80 conscripts for $900
and has garnered over a million views in three days, raising hopes it could be
on the way to a repeat of rapper Psy's "Gangnam Style" blockbuster hit.
In the opening scene, a group of young airmen shovel snow to music from the
Claude-Michel Schonberg adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel, singing "Dig down,
dig down, raise your shovels high" to the tune of "Work Song".
"There is no end to this accursed snow. Dig down, you still have two years
service to go," they chant, referring to their national service stint with the
South Korean men serve for 21 months minimum in the army and longer in the
air force as part of mandatory military service in a nation shadowed by the
threat of North Korea.
During that time, they are cut off from their families and friends for months
on end. They are not even allowed to use smartphones despite living in the most
wired nation on earth.
The parody tells the story of hapless conscript Jean Valjean, or "Airman
24601," who because of the shovelling, manages to spend only 10 minutes with his
visiting girlfriend Cosette. She dumps him - the fate, his comrades assure him,
of any military man.
Besides the take-off of "Work Song," the parody features versions of "I
Dreamed a Dream" and "Red and Black."
"Snow removal is like a black hole. There's no start and no end of it," said
Lieutenant Chung Da-hoon, 25, who directed the video and was a film student
before being called up.
Inspiration came as he and a fellow conscript began singing a song from "Les
Mis" after seeing the movie, he told Reuters.
"We thought we could get sympathy from all Korean men and women who have
brothers or sons. But we didn't expect the response from overseas," he said.
The video has struck a chord not only with the young Korean men who have to
serve in the 600,000 strong armed forces - and for whom autumn means shovelling
leaves and winter shovelling snow - but also celebrities like actor Russell
Crowe, who starred in the Oscar-nominated movie version of "Les Misérables" and
retweeted a link to the video.
South Korean and
U.S. Marines take aim as they ski down a hill during a joint winter drill in
Pyeongchang, some 180 kilometres east of Seoul, on Feb. 7. Marines
from South Korea and the United States took part in military winter drills,
which began on Feb. 4 and run through Feb. 22, to test their limits in
extreme conditions. (AFP Photo/ Getty Images/Jung Yeon-Jejung)
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