How North Koreans ads in western newspapers backfired

Designed mainly for domestic reasons, over-the-top ads were derided even by allies
September 27th, 2013
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On October 8, 1985 The New York Times ran a full-page advertisement with the headline, “Korea Has Given Birth To One More Great Hero.” The ad featured a book “authored” by the “hero” Kim Jong Il (who was actually born in 1941, not the 1980s). Strange as it may sound today, North Korean ads such as this were relatively common in major Western newspapers from 1969 to as late as 1997.

In an attempt to impress the West during the Cold War (and beyond), the North Korean government placed full-page ads in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Irish Times, The London Times, The London Evening Standard, The Sun, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post touting the exploits of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, the Juche ideology and the reunification of Korea. An exact number of how many North Korean ads appeared in these newspapers is unknown but at least 100 were published from 1969-1997. However, the placement of ads in major Western newspapers harmed North Korea’s already unfavorable reputation abroad and proved that North Korean officials were truly out of touch with reality.

READERS REACT

In the West, the ads became a source of jokes and demonstrated the over-the-top nature of the Kim family personality cult. One 1972 Guardian reader, in a letter to the editor, said “Kim Il Sung’s personality cult makes Joe Stalin look like Howard Hughes.” A 1969 Boston Globe reader called Kim Il Sung a “megalomaniac” as “he has spent approximately $50,000 of his country’s hard-earned foreign currency taking advertisements in some of the world’s leading newspapers. The objective: to blow his own kazoo.”

“The placement of ads in major Western newspapers harmed North Korea’s already unfavorable reputation abroad and proved that North Korean officials were truly out of touch with reality”

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“All Efforts to Attain the Goal of Eight Million Tons of Grains” May 2, 1975 New York Times

Western readers expressed confusion as to why the North Korean government would pay for these advertisements with bizarre titles such as, “All Efforts to Attain The Goal of Eight Million Tons of Grain.” The ads were part of North Korea’s campaign, beginning in the late 1960s, to promote Kim Il Sung and Juche on the world stage and win support for the DPRK’s position on reunification. However, even supporters of North Korea criticized their international propaganda campaign. Sean Garland of the Irish Republican Army visited North Korea in 1983 and told his Korean comrades that putting full-page ads expressing Kim Il Sung’s ideas into the Irish Times of “was a waste of money because nobody f—ing read them.” In many of the ads, the North Koreans were promoting the published works of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, but as one Boston Globe reader wrote in a 1969 letter to the editor, “To date, sales have been few. Most people in the Western world have never heard of Kim, or awaited anything from him except trouble.”

“Even supporters of North Korea criticized their international propaganda campaign”

Funded by the North Korean government, the Chongryon, a group of pro-DPRK ethnic Koreans in Japan operated as the intermediaries in North Korea’s world propaganda campaign and paid the newspapers for the placement of the full-page ads. Each of these ads cost anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000. In one instance, they placed an ad in a Middle East newspaper proclaiming, “Kim Il Sung Is a Divine Man,” which did not go over well with devout Muslim readers. In another example that highlights their unrealistic expectations, the Chongryon promised a Tokyo-based publishing company, Miraisha, that they would sell at least 30,000 copies of Kim Il Sung’s biography. Predictably, Kim Il Sung’s biography was not well-received by the international community.

“In one instance, they placed an ad in a Middle East newspaper proclaiming, “Kim Il Sung Is a Divine Man,” which did not go over well with devout Muslim readers”

A CONTROVERSIAL MESSAGE

Though many Americans laughed at the North Korean ads, some were upset that communist propaganda had crept into the pages of major Western newspapers.

Accuracy in Media (AIM), an American conservative news watchdog, was disgruntled over the appearance of a May 31, 1975 North Korean ad, titled, “President Kim Il Sung Talks on Korea’s Reunification” in the New York Times. AIM questioned the accuracy of “many statements in Kim’s ad” and said that it was not clearly labeled as an “advertisement.” AIM asked the chairman and president of the Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, why there was no indication that this was an ad paid for by the North Koreans.

The Times responded that the label “advertisement” did appear above the ad, but it was “conceivable that it was omitted in an early edition” and that paid ads were exempt from needing to be labeled as propaganda. In response, the AIM stated, “There is no question that Kim Il Sung’s language was tasteless and abrasive. Many of his statements are demonstrably factually inaccurate. I think it is perfectly valid to ask why the Times did not apply its long-standing policy (of factual accuracy) in this case.”

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“Kim Jong Il Emerges as the Lodestar for Sailing the 21st Century” December 16, 1997 New York Times

The North Korean government continued to place ads in the Times until 1997 with the last one extolling, “Kim Jong Il Emerges as the Lodestar for Sailing the 21st Century.”

The ad said, “The North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is a man of great leadership, remarkable wisdom, and noble virtues. He is always with the popular masses sharing the ups and downs of life with them. Indeed, he is equipped with all the qualities a great leader needs.” During the mid-1990s, there were many more “downs” than “ups” as a famine swept across North Korea and killed as many as one million people. The advertisement talked of normalizing the strained North Korean-U.S. relationship and included a quote by Kim Jong Il that stated, “We have no intention to regard the United States as our eternal sworn enemy; we hope to normalize the Korea-U.S. relationship.” During the famine, the United States provided the DPRK with assistance totaling over $1.2 billion. Perhaps this advertisement was a subtle appeal that the North needed more aid from its American “friends.”

But what happened when the people who translated the works of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il disagreed with North Korea’s international propaganda campaign? The case of Ali Lameda is telling. In 1966, Lameda, a Venezuelan communist, traveled to Pyongyang to translate the works of Kim Il sung into Spanish. These texts were to be promoted throughout the Spanish speaking world. In private, Lameda expressed uncertainty about the “exaggerated claims that were being made by the North Korean authorities regarding the progress made in their country.” He believed these claims “would be considered too blatant propaganda in the societies” the North Koreans were trying to reach.

“But what happened when the people who translated the works of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il disagreed with North Korea’s international propaganda campaign?”

Lameda was subsequently arrested by the North Koreans and was placed in solitary confinement for the next six years. Who came to rescue Lameda? None other than Romanian dictator and longtime friend of Kim Il Sung, Nicolae Ceausescu.

WHY IT STARTED – AND WHY IT STOPPED

Did the North Koreans really believe that Juche would take root in the West and young college students would start reading the works of Kim Il Sung? Most likely not, but the ads were important for domestic reasons. The North Korean state-run media reported the ads as if they were news articles or editorials written by foreigners praising the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. A report from the North Korean press proclaimed in 1969, “The biography (of Kim Il Sung) had come off the press in English at last” and that “progressive people and public circles in the United States have ardently desired to obtain the book.” As North Korea scholar Adrian Buzo said in his book, Guerilla Dynasty, “An unsophisticated, isolated population may well have come to believe that Kim Il Sung had become a major international statesman – as perhaps did an unsophisticated, isolated leader who allowed such practices to continue.”

This seemingly bizarre North Korean propaganda campaign is part of what North Korea scholar Bruce Cumings calls “national solipsism,” or the worldview held by North Koreans that Korea is the center of the world and should draw the world’s attention. However, once in contact with foreigners, North Koreans soon realized that the Kim family personality cult was an object of mockery rather than adulation. A North Korean laborer who once worked at a timber camp in Russia said to journalist Bradley K. Martin, “We are taught that the whole world worships Kim Il Sung. I met Russians who made fun of this Kim worship, and then I realized that he was not in fact worshipped by the whole world.”

“Why are North Korean ads no longer in Western newspapers? Perhaps the North Korean propagandists realized that their campaign to impress Westerners was a waste of money”

Why are North Korean ads no longer in Western newspapers? Perhaps the North Korean propagandists realized that their campaign to impress Westerners was a waste of money. Nonetheless, the North Korean government still funds Juche study groups across the world (especially in Africa) who supposedly praise the Kim family and their Juche and Songun (military-first) ideologies. Foreigners studying the works of Kim Il Sung and coming to North Korea to praise the two greatest men to have ever lived was important for domestic policy terms. North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov, as explained in his book The Real North Korea, says that the North Korean government’s Juche evangelism “might have been a good investment.” However, the same cannot be said for North Korea’s placement of ads in Western newspapers, which only exacerbated North Korea’s pariah status in the West.

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New York Times advert, 1976

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About the Author

Benjamin R. Young

Benjamin R. Young has a bachelor's and master's degree in history from The State University of New York, The College at Brockport. He will begin his PhD studies in modern Korean history at The George Washington University in Fall 2014. He has studied the Korean language at Geumgang University in Nonsan, South Korea and with the Pyongyang Project in Yanji, China. 

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