Slogans Reveal the Real North Korea

Looking upon slogans promoting social unity and the greatness of the Kim family with a cynical eye is now common in North Korea.

North Koreans employ mimicry of these political slogans to explain their hardships or complain about their situation.

In theory done to instil loyalty in Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Eun, these pieces of propaganda are meant to relay the policies and demagoguery of the Chosun Workers’ Party. For instance, “What the Party decides, we do,” (created in the mid-1980’s) calls on all the people to unconditionally implement the decisions of the Party.

However, the slogan can also be used to rationalize wrongdoing. It justifies anything from soldiers stealing from civilians, workers stealing from factories or farmers taking crops from collective farms to sell in the jangmadang; the slogan has loosely been interpreted to mean that so long as the people decide to do something, they can do it.

Chronic economic hardships have led to this discrediting of government officials and their sloganeering. The slogan, “Whatever the party determines, we will do,” has inspired increasingly sarcastic derivations such as, “If you are doing it, surely it is something anyone can do?”

One defector from North Hamkung Province, commenting on the slogans, said, “Recently, the third generation prince, Kim Jong Eun has become the new target of criticism, a continuation of that expressed towards Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on their promises of rice and meat soup.”

Of course, North Koreans have made use of many other official slogans. “The collective farm field is my vegetable garden” (1987) is one other good example.

Originally, by alluding to the collective farm as being public property, this saying dressed labor up as an act leading to personal benefit and encouraged solidarity. However, as rations failed, workers stole grains from farms under the aegis of that very slogan, because after all, “Since this is my farm, my taking from it is not theft.”

“With 1,000ri [one ri being approximately 0.393m] of tribulation comes 10,000ri of happiness,” (1990) is another slogan aiming to suppress unrest by emphasizing unity. However, in response to the country’s continued economic frustrations, it was re-interpreted and turned into, “With 1,000ri of tribulation awaits another 10,000ri of struggle.”

Similarly, “Though the road ahead may be perilous, let’s travel it laughing,” (1998) has been changed to, “Let them laugh as they go, why are they making us go along?” and “[Life] is no laughing matter, so how are we supposed to laugh?”

“Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are a great sun for the people,” has been turned into “They are indeed the sun; if you go too close you burn to death and freeze if you go too far away.”

According to defectors, this slogan is popular for it’s accuracy; you can get rich and warm by fawning to the Kim family, but you can also get seriously burned by doing so. On the other hand, should you distance yourself from or oppose the regime, you are likely to find yourself in prison (in North Korea, prisons are known “the cold room”), where you can easily die.

“Let’s live in our own way,” (1998) is used as, “In the Party, we live well for ourselves no matter what you say.” As state propaganda continues to divorce itself from reality, the way it is interpreted offers good evidence of growing dislike of the Kim Jong Il regime.

Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to