Seeing North Korea Through Its Graphic Design

Entertainment By Elena Boaghi |

In 1993, Nicholas Bonner visited Pyongyang, North Korea, for the first time. Seeing an insular and enigmatic country with his own eyes and experiencing its culture was exhilarating. But one thing in particular really stoked his curiosity: Its product packaging.

“I was charmed and simply taken by the graphic design elements of the products there,” Bonner writes in Made In North Korea, a new book from Phaidon that includes photographs of candy wrappers, beer bottle labels, food-can labels, cigarette boxes, postcards, cosmetics, and more. He squirreled all of it away for more than a decade, between 1993 and 2005, during his frequent travels to the country. (Bonner runs Koryo, one of the most high-profile tourism companies that operates in North Korea.)

In capitalist countries, consumption is closely linked to personal identity. Bonner’s book illustrates that something similar holds true in Communist countries — yet instead of the product representing the individual, in North Korea the products represent the collective country. Nearly everything in North Korea is stagecraft, from its architecture to its rituals and how it portrays itself internationally. Likewise, its products and how they’re marketed reveal a nuanced view of the national identity.

[Photo: courtesy Phaidon]

“This collection is personal and subjective rather than comprehensive; it is not intended as a thorough survey of North Korean graphic ephemera, but is a true reflection of the breadth and style of graphic output I encountered over these years,” Bonner writes.

The goods in the book themselves will be familiar to most people–alcohol, candy, canned products–but the packaging is entirely different. As Bonner points out, western products rely on evocative branding and marketing to appeal to our emotions when we choose what to buy. North Korea’s labeling is simpler in comparison, with hand-drawn illustrations of the product inside emblazoned on labels and boxes.

Additionally, since all of the graphic designers are trained and employed by the state and all factories are government-owned, there is little variation in style from product to product and manufacturer to manufacturer.

Commemorative stamp sets featuring the British Royal Family. Images of North Korean leaders are venerated and would never be shown on any products other than books they have penned themselves, such as The Great Teacher of Journalists (by Kim Jong Il). [Photo: Collection Nicholas Bonner/courtesy Phaidon]

“Change and development in product design, consequently, is cautious and slow,” Bonner writes. “Koreans are proud of their heritage and refer to it as ‘five thousand years of history.’ The use of traditional motifs and a color palette derived from Korea’s heritage remain a constant, and with the lack of foreign influence, graphic artists produce a unique ‘house style’ based on a mixture of simplicity, non-deliberate retro-styling, and tradition.”

Made in North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in the DPRK, Nicholas Bonner, Phaidon, open at pages 36-37, chapter opener “Let’s Wear Our Hair in the Socialist Style.” [Photo: courtesy Phaidon]

Over the years, North Korea’s economic model shifted, especially after the 2002 reforms legalizing private markets that moved it away from a purely socialist model (though didn’t entirely abandon it). The most recent objects in Made In North Korea date from 2005, and Bonner notes the way the reforms are articulated through packaging. Since North Korean companies weren’t receiving state subsidies, they were more reliant on market forces like supply and demand. Their packaging reflects this, like a mid-2000s cigarette box whose packaging reflects the use of computer graphics. Designers began using more commercial imagery, so that North Korean products could compete with more imports. Digital–versus hand-drawn–graphics appeared on products, and some packaging became flashier as a way to market their quality, like Pyongyang-brand cigarettes sold in gold boxes, as Bonner points out.

While non-North Koreans will never truly understand what it’s like to live in that culture, the products do tell a story about the everyday objects that make up daily life. Activist artist Barbara Kruger said it best: “I shop therefore I am.” That’s true regardless of where you are. Find Made In North Korea on phaidon.com for $40.

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