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Poster wars: North Korea’s secret weapon?

Kim poster blog

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.



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