Oops. That Hits a Bit Close to Home: Second Thoughts on North Korean Propaganda
By Nate Thayer
I had my finger on the enter button to post a snarky comment about recent satellite photos from Google Earth which revealed a message of praise, each letter measuring 49 feet wide and 65 feet high, carved into the side of a North Korean mountain reading “Long Live General Kim Jong Un, the Shining Sun!”
Earlier this year, after Kim Jong Il’s death, the slogan “Peerless Patriot General Kim Jong Il” was revealed as carved into Mount Sokda, in South Pyonggan province, North Korea.
I felt quite comfortable in expressing my outrage at another oversized example of absurd state sponsored political propaganda, once again taken to precise levels of perfection by the boneheads in charge in Pyongyang.
According to the Daily NK, a media outlet run by North Korean defectors, these chopping up of the earth for political propaganda “got worse after Kim Il Sung’s death, when Kim Jong Il ordered the authorities to carve phrases into various scenic locations because ‘We need to convey to our descendants how great a person we had as Suryeong [our leaders]” by “carving inane things in them like ‘The Nation’s Celebrated Mountain. Kim Jong Il.’
Then I paused, as vague recollections of similar propaganda monuments flashed a red warning sign, and, very shortly, my riotous indignation was rapidly deflated as I took a bit of a look into the larger issue of governments carving monuments of political adulation into mountainsides.
There is the matter of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
Mount Rushmore features 60-foot sculptures of the heads of four United States presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln) carved into the side of the mountain in a memorial covering 1,278 acres.
In addition to the ostentatious oversized propaganda icon, it is controversial because the United States stole the land from the Native American Lakota tribe in a war and then granted the land back to the Lakota in 1968 in perpetuity. And then swiped it back.
Then it seems to get even worse.
The sculptor of Mount Rushmore was one Gutzon Borglum, who, it turns out, was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Then it gets worse and plain weird.
The largest carved propaganda monument on earth is in fact a bas relief sculpture, the Confederate Memorial Carving on Stone Mountain, Georgia, which memorializes the side that lost the American civil war fought to end slavery. The KKK activist, Gutzon Borglum, was first commissioned to do this carving, abandoning it in 1923 to begin Mount Rushmore.
This monument depicts three Confederate leaders of the U.S. Civil War measuring about 3 acres–the size of three football fields. The carving measures 90 by 190 feet, and is recessed 42 feet into the mountain, the deepest point at Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s elbow, which is 12 feet deep into the mountain’s surface. The carving is 400 feet (120 meters) above the ground, measures 90 by 190 feet (58 meters), and is recessed 42 feet (13 meters) into the mountain.
The Ku Klux Klan connection seems to be a dominant thread in outsized U.S. propaganda monuments craved out of stone.
Then it gets even wackier.
A few years ago, In recent years, stone samples from Stone Mountain were sent to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation for use in the monument under construction in Washington, D.C. in King’s honor, but they lost out in the bidding to a superior supplier. From China.
Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington is remembered for his reference to “let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!”
The MLK Memorial on the National Mall, next to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, was completed exactly one year ago, the fall of 2011, after a 27-year wait,
And it was designed by a Chinese artist, carved by Chinese workers, and is made from imported Chinese granite, which was reconstructed by Chinese workers on the National Mall.
The Economist noted that the memorial caused a political hullabaloo at the time: “Why not an American artist, critics ask? With American rock? And why use white granite, some have noted, to portray a black man?”
The nationally syndicated African American Washington Post columnist, Clarence Page, answered the question, because “white rock shows up better than black rock at night. Chinese white granite is harder than the domestic variety, so it will last longer. The artist best prepared to work the hard Chinese rock is, not surprisingly, Chinese” although he hastened to add the memorial’s Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin, is “better known for his mammoth tributes to Chairman Mao” and his rendition of Martin Luther King is “a bit too much of a worker’s-paradise seriousness for my taste.”
Poet Maya Angelou complained the inscription on the memorial, a quote from King, makes him “look like an arrogant twit.”
The Economist went on to posit that “Mr. Lei is not hired to offer his interpretation of a subject…On the contrary, he is hired not to interpret, to apply the same psychologically dead and mendaciously indifferent treatment to all his subjects. Mr. Lei is a political bullshit artist, and it shows. That Chinese white granite is especially durable is a stupid reason to get stuck with this kind of soulless stone agitprop.”
So, to sum it up, a north east Asian propaganda artist trained by Chairman Mao was the choice of Washington to build a propaganda monument to a political activist who was assassinated for protesting the government policies memorialized by the slave owning former head of states whose heads were carved in a mountain in the American west by a Ku Klux Klan inspired artist who abandoned his commission to carve what is now the biggest propaganda monument on earth to the leaders of those who went to war to preserve slavery, which is in MLK’s home state of Georgia.
So let’s return briefly to North Korea.
A few weeks after the MLK monument was unveiled in Washington, North Korea pulls the sheets off its latest propaganda effort, a 120 meter inscription carved on Mount Sokda for Kim Jong-Il. The inscription read: “Peerless Patriot General Kim Jong-Il. February 16, Juche 101 (2012)” Kim’s name is 10 meters high, 5.5 meters wide and 1.4 meters deep, according to official Korean Central News Agency. “Officials and working people in South Pyongan province chose the rock that is easily visible, reflecting the ardent desire of the people around the country to exalt his immortal revolutionary feats forever,” it added.
And then back to the United States.
In 1995, Tyrone Brooks, a black resident of Stone Mountain, Georgia, was told by his grandmother that black people had been lynched and thrown from the mountaintop. “I did not grow up with a good feeling about Stone Mountain,” Brooks told the Los Angeles Times:”I still don’t have a good feeling about it.”
When the 1996 Olympics were held in nearby Atlanta, there was a laser show nightly from May through Labor Day featuring Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, and the Confederate flag and accompanied by Elvis Presley’s rendition of “Dixie.”
In 1997, Stone Mountain was a majority black city and elected a black mayo, Chuck Burris.
The 20th-century Ku Klux Klan was born here in 1915, and, until his death in 1993, the town was home to James R. Venable, the hate-spewing imperial wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Now Burris lives in the same house where Mr. Venable, himself the mayor in the 1940’s, lived for most of his life.
“Tell me,” said Chuck E. Burris, the then Mayor-elect, ”that God doesn’t have a sense of humor. There’s a new Klan in Stone Mountain, only it’s spelled with a C: c-l-a-n, citizens living as neighbors. And I guess I’m the black dragon.”
So the question seems to be should anyone really try and mess with the ridiculous edifices erected by the ego’s of politicians in history. It seems more fun to just enjoy them and make fun of them and then laugh at them.
Or we could try option number two.
On March 1, 2001, the then in power Taliban of destroyed two giant Buddha statues in a particularly barbaric act of cultural destruction in which they took cannons and shelled the 1,800 year-old statues carved into a mountainside in Afghanistan on the Silk Road. They claimed that they were false idols contrary to their Islamic beliefs.
The two massive Bamiyan Buddha’s were 50 meters (165 feet) and 34.5 meters (114 feet) tall and were built around the second century. Koichiro Matsuura, chief of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization convened an emergency meeting of members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to try to stop the destruction. ”They are destroying statues that the entire world considers to be masterpieces,” Matsuura said at the time.
Even Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf couldn’t change their minds, and wrote Taliban head Mullah Omar a four-page letter urging him not to blow up the statues, secretly hand-delivered to Omar by Pakistani Internal Security Director Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, but the letter had no effect, according to my former Far Eastern Review colleague Ahmed Rashid in his bestselling book on the country.
“The destruction work is not as easy as people would think. You can’t knock down the statues by dynamite or shelling as both of them have been carved into the cliff. They are firmly attached to the mountain,” a Taliban spokesman lamented at the time.
Osama bin Laden’s influence over the Taliban at the time apparently played a role in the decision to try to erase history. Bin Laden is said to have campaigned vigorously for the destruction of the statues, which further isolated both Bin Laden and the Taliban. That strategy towards state sanctioned art didn’t end well for either of them.
By 2006, both Omar and bin Laden were holed up probably regretting their political positions on art.
The new Afghan government began re-construction of the statues, and a $1.3 million UNESCO-funded project began collecting by hand the shards of clay and plaster.
Plus, the new Afghan government gave the green light to Japanese artist Hiro Yamagata’s $64 million sound-and-laser show to begin in 2009 to project Buddha images powered by hundreds of windmills that would also supply electricity to surrounding residents.
And then a few months ago, calls to destroy Egypt’s Great Pyramids Began as prominent Muslim clerics called for their demolition, as Saudi Sheikh Ali bin Said al-Rabi’I put it, those “symbols of paganism.”
Egypt’s Muslim Salafi party has a plan to cover them with wax. Most recently, Bahrain’s “Sheikh of Sunni Sheikhs” and President of National Unity, Abd al-Latif al-Mahmoud, called on Egypt’s new president, Muhammad Morsi, to “destroy the Pyramids.”
My advice would be to do a bit of internet research before casting stones that might break ones own windows.