Potato Propaganda: A Very North Korean Revolution

Everything had already been tried, and most people weren’t listening. Now firmly on the edge — after four years of famine — it seemed like their world was finally coming to its natural end. Potatoes would be a last, clawing attempt at survival.

It started when it all started. Waiting until he was sure that the Japanese shadow would never return, a stout man, with a patchy reputation, skulked into the eastern port of Wonsan. There was no welcoming party, and no one recognised him; just as he didn’t recognise the country around him. Then in his mid-thirties, this was a home that he had fought for, but which he hadn’t seen with adult eyes.

Soon he was the ‘Great Leader’, and the same people who couldn’t tell-him-apart, and who only had a spattering of preposterously over-the-top war stories to base anything on, were suddenly expected to adore him. It was too early to risk ruling by fear alone, but the young leader, Kim Il-sung, needed to rapidly stake his reputation. The alternative — if history was anything to go by — was coup d’état, and it all coming to an early end, dangling from a lamppost in downtown Pyongyang… passers-by too scared to cut him down.

The average citizen needed something measurable — they needed rapid improvements in their daily lives. Money was borrowed from the Soviet big brother, subsidized fertilizer was distributed, terraced fields were erected, and traditional irrigation systems were replaced by electric pumps. Once an impossibly hard place to farm successfully, North Korea was transformed overnight… and the slow burning fuse of famine was lit.

As he died in 1994, the Great Leader got out at just the right time. The Soviet Union had collapsed, fertilizer had become too expensive to import, and an energy crisis put an end to the irrigation system. For the first time in generations, farmers were left to themselves, toiling unassisted in the mountainous, harsh conditions. They failed. Utopias don’t do disaster planning — so when the floods came, no one was prepared. The terraced fields were submerged, and soon swept away entirely… the famine had arrived.

And immediately reports of hunger, or food shortages, became crimes in themselves. When this became impossible to police, it was playfully renamed the “Eating Problem”; this failed to do the trick. A more evocative, nationalistic tact was attempted — the famine was the ‘Arduous March’.

Starvation edges its way on top of you. Like a knife to the throat, you may try to pretend it’s not there, but the cold metal still nags at your skin and forces a shiver all the same. The scenery began to noticeably change, with once clear hills suddenly littered with fresh, shallow graves. The worst stories of Ukrainian cannibalism were resurfacing with a Korean face, and those willing to risk gunfire were crossing the Yalu River into China at record numbers. As a percentage of the population, more Koreans died in the famine than Chinese in the Great Leap Forward.

And it was now all on the head of a new Kim. Having inherited the leadership from his father, Kim Jong-il, though one of the few people in the country that was still well-fed, was nonetheless staring-down his own death. All that North Korea was, was no more. The effeminately named ‘Dear Leader’, if he wanted to survive, would have to start again.

State ideology twisted. Six weeks after the ‘Agreed Framework’ was signed, when U.S. aid was flowing into the hands of famine victims, after President Clinton had personally written to Kim Jong-il to reassure him about their intentions, at an absolute apex in American-North Korean relations, Songun — or ‘military first’ — was incongruously announced. The ever-predatory American enemy, and the heavy cost of keeping them at bay, was the reason for the scarcity and suffering.

But more was needed — something positive that people could cling to. And this would be potatoes.

North Korean propaganda, when it turns inward, has the badgering, we-are-all-in-this-together, tone of a passive aggressive spouse; beginning its demands with an imploring ‘lets’. “Let Us Defend the Revolutionary Spirit of Independence” — “Lets eat two meals a day” — “Lets breed more high-yielding fish” — “Lets expand goat rearing and create more grassland in accordance with the Party!” — “Lets grow more sunflowers” — “Let us raise more grass-eating animals!”

At one point, this messaging was all about corn. The famine put an end to that. It also put an end to the lazy, one dimensional style. Learning directly from foreign media and Western marketing techniques, North Korean propaganda, at just the moment that it needed to, matured into something capable of salvaging the regime. And it would do so, strangely, by trying to alter the cultural significance of root vegetables. The Dear Leader would be saved by gamja hyeongmyeong’ — the ‘Potato revolution’.

It all began in October 1998, with Kim Jong-il taking a trip to Taehongdan County in Ryanggang province. Once there he announced that the military, in their time-off from fighting the “Yankee Bastards”, would be working to make North Korea the “potato kingdom of Asia”. A favourite story of the new propaganda machine, involved the pregnant wife of a soldier-farmer having her unborn child named (a great honour) by the Dear Leader. Prophetic as always, Kim had the foresight to offer two names; Hongdani for a girl, Taehongi for a boy (both derivatives of the county’s name). She gives birth to twins; a girl and a boy.

Imagery of the Taehongdan field trip, such as Kim Song-min’s painting, ‘A Long Awaited Meeting in Taehongdan’ (2009), shows Kim sharing potatoes and ‘guidance’ as local farmers huddle around a campfire. Taehongdan is ground-zero. A symbol for a desperate people. With hard-work and direction from the leader, the suffering could be over; and a new affluence, beyond pre-famine standards, would be felt. As the propaganda goes, the soldiers were gifted new apartments, personally furnished by Kim Jong-il, and the farming community broke free from a starvation that they were never allowed to admit existed.

When the North Koreans want to add legitimacy to shaky ideas, they go back to Kim Il-sung. So despite having nothing to do with the potato revolution — as you would expect for something that began four years after his death — stories started to emerge of the Great Leader’s guerrilla days in Manchuria. So affected was Kim Il-sung by ‘the potato’, that he never stopped lauding them as a bulwark, backs-to-the-wall resistance against starvation. He remembered in vivid detail how the local peasants “survived on potatoes”, and how his first wife Kim Yong-suk would cook the vegetable in camp, fuelling tired men to continue fighting. While the new epicentre of ‘the potato’, Taehongdan, became, almost overnight, the historical site of a great anti-Japanese resistance.

The placement of Soviet-linked propaganda is another, slightly more surreptitious, attempt to link the potato back to a previous era, and a leader whose credibility was beyond question. It is an old communist tactic, that when selling improvement it is done in the basest possible terms — food security. Selecting a town, almost at random, and then building them as a national example, based on a single, new, agricultural initiative, such as the 1950’s slogan, “corn is queen of the fields”, is a lesson learnt from Soviet experience.

Credit for the potato revolution would go to the dead leader — appropriate enough considering he was posthumously conferred as ‘Eternal President’. The role of his son would be to, once again, bathe publically in his father’s afterglow. Propaganda would paint the picture of a master organiser, a man implementing the potato revolution and polishing the rough edges; all the while being guided from beyond the grave.

As sweet potato stalls began popping up around Pyongyang, and as people were tasked with collecting and donating their own faeces for fertilizer, it was all being personally overseen by Kim Jong-il, in an effort to “spread the potato-growing industry to the whole country”.

When visiting Russia in 2001, the Dear Leader was pressed to explain the policy in a way that he would never have to in North Korea. “Look at the Germans. They have grown used to the potato and it’s become their staple food. Why can’t we do this in North Korea?” he responded. “You Russians have a good tradition of eating potatoes. I am also trying to introduce the potato in Korea but with little success so far”.

To kick things along, propaganda started looking back to the pre-1945 period of Japanese rule. There were no potatoes back then, and there were no potatoes when the famine hit in 1994. It was shockingly tenuous, but — consciously stoked along through the years — anti-Japanese sentiment had never waned, and there was likely some value in reviving the old scape goat.

But pointing to something that is not there, doesn’t quite catch the mind in the same way as pointing to something that is. And at a time of such extreme famine this would have to be done delicately. The old promises of meat, eggs, pork, chicken and rice wouldn’t work, hence the potatoes; though neither would anything that promoted — even inadvertently — consumption. The new propaganda would have to be, at least in the beginning, careful not to remind people about what they could no longer afford, and the shortages they were now feeling.

One of the few things known for certain about Kim Jong-il, was his love for cinema. So the potato revolution was naturally ushered in by a new wave of North Korean film. This became the spear-point for the campaign. Suddenly in every corner, of every frame, of every new movie release, were the non-subtle product placements of bulbs, flowers, raw harvests, and recipes. Layered on this, was similarly blatant dialogue — casually spliced into unrelated scenes — talking up the nutritional benefits, and indeed moral importance, of potato farming. Through it all, the imagery was always pre-culinary — an encouragement to produce, not to consume. It was all about raw food, abundant fields, and hope; never the prepared dishes. Always treading carefully not to needlessly remind people of their hunger.

Everything in North Korea is a comparison with the outside world, whether it’s the ‘tallest building’, ‘largest hotel’, ‘best language’ or replica of the Arch De Triumph deliberately made slightly taller than the original in Paris. And so, through the flood of potato-related images, movies and TV series’, this old-form of self-aggrandising nationalism was understandably smuggled in. With the benefit of “love of the Marshal for his people”, the North Korean potato — despite being grown from imported seeds — became a vegetable of exceptional quality. With a unique nutritional make-up — such as new amino acids — this potato would prevent cancer, protect the liver, reduce swelling, cure blindness, and extend life in general.

In the grainy cartoon, Hyanggigol-e on gamja, designed to work the revolution into the minds of children, a scientist makes the terrible mistake of neglecting research into the potato, in favour of rice. The young protagonist fumbles through a rough-shot spiritual awakening, realises her error, and becomes an unwavering advocate for potato cuisine. At this point, any self-imposed restrictions on the propaganda effort had fallen away. Consumption was now being promoted, with an increasing number of movies and TV shows being written to include chefs as central characters; along with people savouring beautifully prepared dishes such as potato bread, potato porridge, potato cakes, potato soups and potato doughnuts. The marketing of consumer choice had finally arrived in North Korea.

It would all hit a logical wall. When the North Korean party organ, Rodong Sinmun, declared “We have started to see the potato revolution as an ideological revolution”, people naturally understood what was being asked of them –‘stop thinking about rice and other grains’. But rice was still being farmed, imported and cooked. It was just all going to the elite. While most North Koreans couldn’t possibly have known, through the rise in black market trade, and the breakdown in ordinary state security, a growing number would have been aware that rice was still available; and that a significant number of people were managing to survive without wholeheartedly embracing the potato (considered to be a last-resort food item).

Any excitement about the potato revolution being a miracle fix for the famine, would likely have been lost when the farmers were told they had no choice but to participate. Raising potatoes is not the same as grains. When you seed potatoes, you are seeding something that is already edible; a hard thing to do when you have a starving family in front of you. Harder still when the local population — aware that you are being forced to plant potatoes — are all just as hungry. Crops planted in the evening would run the risk of being dug-up and eaten before morning. All this producing less seeds for the next planting season, and shrinking the overall size of the industry year-upon-year.

For the few crops that remained in the ground unmolested, they predictably suffered from the same famine-related problem as other crops. Despite new inflows of foreign aid, the Dear Leader still couldn’t get his hands on anywhere near the amount of fertilizer needed for productive farming in North Korean conditions. And a starving population just didn’t have the luxury of allowing soil to sit idle and replenish naturally. Desperately the propaganda shifted again. To buttress the potato revolution, new campaigns started extolling the virtues of raising livestock in the hope that the manure would fertilize the fields. People whose primary crops had failed, and who were so close to starvation that they couldn’t afford to wait for seeds to grow into potatoes, were somehow being asked to get their hands on herds of animals, and then rather than butchering them for meat, wait, in the hope that potatoes might be on the way.

After enough people had died, and there was finally enough food to go around, North Koreans moved-on and quietly left the potato revolution behind them. And the propaganda followed. The imagery stopped, the film industry moved on to new things. But the lasting impact wouldn’t be insignificant. North Korean propaganda had road-tested a range of new techniques, the lessons learnt from this would lay a solid foundation around future campaigns, and with it the regime as well.

Kim Jong-il only spoke in public once — and it wasn’t about potatoes. His son, and the new leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has spoken about them, but only to talk down their importance. In Pyongyang today, catching sight of a potato — whether in a field or on a plate — is rare. Once again it is a food held in reserve, only to be turned to in hard times. But for those old enough to remember the famine, the vegetable has a new significance. It produces painful memories, as well as an uneasy nostalgia that comes from understanding just how fortunate they are to have survived — to have overcome the Arduous March. Perhaps a sign of changing fortunes, the once highly spoken of North Korean potato is now most commonly used for making cheap liquor.

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* This article references: Gabroussenko, T. (2016) “The Potato Revolution in the DPRK: A Novel Type of Political Campaign”. Korea Journal, vol. 56, no. 1 (spring 2016): 116–139.