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The graphic art of everyday items in North Korea reveals the individuality hiding in a totalitarian state

KCNA/via Reuters
  • Isabella Steger
By Isabella Steger

Asia deputy editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

There is color, there is variety, and today, there is even competition in North Korea.

Amassed over the course of almost three decades, Nicholas Bonner’s Made in North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in The DPRK, recently published by Phaidon, is a vast collection of ephemera from the secretive state showcasing designs on everything from cigarette boxes to tinned fish to cosmetics. Bonner, a Briton with a background in landscape architecture, moved to Beijing in 1993 and in that same year founded Koryo Tours, which to this day continues to take foreigners to North Korea (as well as other adventurous destinations).

“Made in North Korea”

While North Korea is without a doubt the world’s most tightly controlled state, Bonner has sought, through the graphics and design of objects, to show that beauty, creativity, and individuality too proliferate there. Even a sheet of wrapping paper with a repeating motif of a Pyongyang architectural landmark, for example, should be admired for its “minimalistic simplicity creating beautifully rhythmic artwork,” he writes. The ego of the artist is not celebrated in North Korea, as paintings and other forms of art are seen as propaganda mechanisms to communicate a message, and are unsigned. Nonetheless, Bonner notes, designers of proletarian graphics, such as for water bottles, have been given awards.

Nor are North Korean graphic designers immune to the sorts of commercial pressures that exist elsewhere in the world. Bonner writes that in the mid-2000s, hand-designed graphics slowly started to give way to computer-designed images to easier serve the mass production of consumer goods in the country, whether that’s soft drinks, confectionery, or beer. Even in North Korea, “companies compete with each other, trying to make their product better than that of a rival”—indeed, recent defectors and researchers have suggested the growing presence of the market (paywall) in the country’s highly centralized economy.

It should come as no surprise that Bonner—who has also made a number of films about North Korea and helped bring Western films to the country—is a believer in engagement with North Korea rather than the kind of isolation being sought by the US and other countries today through increasingly severe sanctions. As a person committed to spotting the nuance and color in life in North Korea, Bonner, speaking recently in Hong Kong, said that he fears an increasingly “black-and-white” depiction of the country will prevail as tensions rise with Pyongyang over its nuclear program.

Nicholas Bonner/Phaidon
A boarding pass from North Korean national carrier Air Koryo, which does have a business class section. Mostly carrying North Koreans, on arrival at Beijing airport the Japanese government or press often arrange for their film crews to record who is getting off the plane. Air Koryo recently expanded into other business areas, such as taxis, petrol stations, tobacco, and soft drinks.
Nicholas Bonner/Phaidon
This box of candies emulates Western-style packaging, which even in North Korea is associated with luxury. The sweets are filled with ginseng-infused alcohol.
Nicholas Bonner/Phaidon
A packet of Hana cigarettes that promotes reunification. “Hana” means “one” in Korean, and in North Korea, the Koreas are always depicted as a unified country.
Nicholas Bonner/Phaidon
Face powder made with ginseng, a root grown in North Korea that is seen as a tonic with powerful healing properties. North Korean women, as in other Asian countries, also see having a white complexion as beautiful. It is often said in both North and South Korea that northern women are the prettiest.
Nicholas Bonner/Phaidon
Labels from bottles of Ponghak Beer. The beer is brewed in Pyongsong, a satellite city of Pyongyang. It is acknowledged for being good on tap but does not travel well as the beer is not pasteurized, hence the date marks in months along the top, and in days along the bottom of the label.
Nicholas Bonner/Phaidon
A salt packet from Air Koryo. Bonner notes that the graphic here suggests that even in a highly authoritarian state, where something like this would emerge from a manufacturing process overseen by layers of bureaucrats, there can be glimpses of playfulness—even if it’s on something as trivial as a condiment packet.
A series of commemorative stamps were issued in 1982 in North Korea to mark the birth of Prince William to Princess Diana and Prince Charles. Images of North Korean leaders, on the other hand, would never be shown on any products other than books that they wrote themselves.
Nicholas Bonner/Phaidon
North and South Korea speak different forms of Korean, both as a result of historical regional differences and the political partition of the country. This tin of squid is labeled as “Nak Ji.” In South Korea, squid is called “O Jing Eu.”

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