When the North Korean Workers Party, the government, a ministry, the army, a public institution want to promote a political or a social message or to celebrate some event through a poster campaign, using Western advertising jargon, one or more artists are asked to conceive a poster to illustrate the desired message. Normally such posters are realized using tempera and their size is about 70 x 100 cm.
An artist can also decide on his own initiative to make a poster, typically to represent some aspect of the party policies that are outlined at the beginning of each year.
It was Kim Jong Il himself, the leader of the country, to say that a poster must be immediately understood and induce to action. The message must be clear, direct, informative, explicative and exhortative.
The poster, or the posters, selected are then reproduced in many copies and possibly in different sizes. The copies are typically hand-painted on heavy paper, mainly using tempera but also acrylic paints. The reproductions are made by the original author and/or by other artists. Very large editions can be printed. Sometimes a poster is made in very large sizes and normally it is also hand painted. Posters can also be reproduced as illustrations, in postcards and even in stamps.
The copies made by the various artists show differences, often great, one from the other: different colors, different treatment of the images, different areas covered by paint etc. The writing, the fundamental element of the poster, remains, of course, unchanged.
In this case too, a “copy” has not the negative stigma it has in the West. For an Oriental artist it is not unbecoming nor belittling to reinterpret someone else’s work.
The majority of the artists that paint posters make also other kinds of works, using china ink—the traditional style—but also oil and other techniques. Many of their works are exhibited in museums and galleries. These artists are not “graphic designers” or “graphic artists” as their Western colleagues who make advertising posters are called, often with a belittling connotation.
Normally the posters on display in public places—streets, schools, factories, public buildings etc.—are not signed even though record of the artist is always kept. Those for collection or other uses are instead often signed.
Posters can be broadly divided in two categories: political/military and social, with possible subcategories. An important subcategory of the political/military is the anti-Americans: they are considered past or potential aggressors. They are menaced of terrible consequences in case they attack North Korea, or they are reminded of their misdeeds, or they are ridiculed. The social posters, that overlap the political ones when they treat ideological themes, are normally exhortations to behaviors that can be practical (Let each family save water), more general (Let’s develop the intelligence of the children) or with strong political connotations (Let’s keep high the banner of unity and victory).
Of course North Korean posters fall within the socialist realism tradition that however they reinterpret both in style and, clearly, in contents. Perhaps their most remarkable aspect is that right now only North Korean artists express themselves through this genre.