Billboards are a ubiquitous presence in most any major city. Depending on local ordnances, they may fill the entire side of a building, dominate cityscapes, or simply appear on the roadside in a variety of shapes and sizes.
The city of Pyongyang is no exception. The only difference is that there is only one product being advertised here: communism.
Propaganda is the evil step cousin of advertising and the North Koreans embrace it as eagerly as an account executive on Madison Avenue pitching for the Coca Cola business.
Although there’s certainly nowhere quite like Times Square in Pyongyang, there is hardly a spot in the capital where one is not exposed to a billboard or mural extolling the virtues of communism, North Korea, or either one of the Kims.
And just in case someone is blind, a fleet of propaganda vans with speakers mounted atop drive around the city pumping out the latest rhetoric.
Naturally, the state controls the mass media as well, jamming incoming foreign transmissions and making it technically impossible to tune into any other broadcast except for the official state one. This, in part, is controlled by producing radios with only a single FM button and absolutely no dial! I had one of these North Korean specialties in my hotel room and sat staring at it for the longest time; it was simply impossible to change the station and it left me feeling completely powerless.
In addition, there is no such thing as the internet in North Korea or cell phones. Anyone entering the country had to leave their cell phones with customs officials who kept them locked up and inaccessible for the entirety of our stay. And I certainly didn’t get a copy of USA Today under my hotel room door.
Surprisingly, being cut off from the outside world was actually somewhat enjoyable for the five days I spent in North Korea. I quite liked the freedom of not being tied to my cell phone and email and relished in the ignorant bliss of not being exposed to troubling international news. This isolationist cocoon where the state controls everything you hear and see, however, would not have been fun for too long. Living an entire life under such conditions would be hell.
There was one brief glimmer of hope, however. One day when driving around the outskirts of Pyongyang we passed a billboard doing what billboards do throughout the rest of the world: selling a product. Someone has managed to erect North Korea’s first (and only?) billboard, and as you can see, it’s advertising brand new automobiles.
And that, folks, is the slippery slope of capitalism.
Yesterday: The Followers of Kim
Tomorrow: A North Korean History Lesson about the U.S.S. Pueblo