Q&A: Nicholas Bonner shows North Korea’s carefully-cultivated image

Nicholas Bonner first visited Korea in 1993, and since then has spent “most of my adult life involved in North Korea”. Now based in Beijing, he makes regular trips to the country with his company, Koryo Tours, and has also put together films and other cultural projects with North Korea with his other business, Koryo Studio. Bonner has collected ephemera from North Korea for nearly 25 years and recently published a book showcasing some of it with Phaidon, Made in North Korea: Graphics from Everyday Life; on 23 February a selection from this archive is going on show at London’s House of Illustration. Featuring everything from metro tickets to stamps, postcards to luggage labels, tinned food labels to gift-wrap, Bonner’s collection includes a healthy portion of photographs made and disseminated by the DPRK. BJP  caught up with him to find out more. 

A presentation postcard set published in 1968

BJP: What do you have in your archive?

Nicholas Bonner: Our office in Beijing is full of North Korean ephemera – films, comics, and of course years of personal photography. We have also worked with photographers from Martin Parr in the 1990s to a recent exhibition with Carl de Keyzer and Eddo Hartmann. Perhaps one of the most well-known shoots was the book Welcome to Pyongyang which we produced with Charlie Crane, which was published by Chris Boot in 2006.

BJP: Is it dangerous to collect the materials you keep?

NB: No danger, but it can cause a bit of confusion among Korean friends as this isn’t the kind of thing they would do themselves. North Koreans friends do not really understand the concept of the book. They do appreciate design and its aesthetics (there are yearly publications and exhibitions that show the best of graphic design), but a book for used labels and packaging leaves them a bit confused! Problems could arise if it was thought by people there that the book was showing them and their country (they often don’t distinguish) in a derogatory or patronising manner – that their graphics were naive and antiquated for example. But this is simply not the case. This book is actually celebrating this period of hand-crafted designs.

BJP: Your book title references the everyday, but is it fair to say that much of the material you have collected is aimed at tourists? What image is being presented? 

NB: We wanted more than just a graphic book. It is partly a look into North Korean daily life, partly how they see foreigners and promote their country, and partly a kind of personal diary. The graphics shown in the book were taken from numerous boxes of graphics collected since 1993 – the selection of each example was made either because they were objects of beauty, had an interesting story around their use, or functioned also as a personal anecdote (eg a ticket for the Mass Games to watch the first performance of two teenage gymnasts we spent a year filming for a documentary film, A State of Mind).

Much of the imagery is simple utilitarian product announcement, and not really advertising – ‘This is what I am and this is what I do’. We included a large number of products aimed at the tourist market (which is very small, under 4000 western tourists a year hence the large number of dated postcards, badges etc still available) not only because they are objects of delight but also as they allow us to relate to how the state markets their country to the world outside. There are no private companies in North Korea, everything is State-run.

Views of Nampo glassworks from a presentation set of postcards published in 1984

BJP: How would you characterise the use of photography in North Korea?

NB: Photography in North Korea is not an art-form per se; it is used for recording purposes closely tied in with propaganda. Whilst they do have art competitions and shows in various mediums, I have never seen a photographic exhibition other than those used to extoll the virtues of the revolution. Imagery is used to propagate the belief in a strong, powerful, and prosperous country, and also that all is going well and progress is being made on all fronts.

BJP: Have you noticed any changes in the way that North Korea uses photography over the last 25 years?

NB: Sadly no changes, apart from the adaptation of technology to produce and print a more refined image – particularly the use of photoshop, which is a vast improvement from the cut-and paste they used to use to ‘sell’ their version of history – but still tied to propaganda. If you compare a 1993 issue of the monthly magazine Korea Pictorial to this month’s copy there is almost no difference in the subject matter or set up, the style is remarkably consistent and resistant to change in this respect. Normally it is imagery of the military, industry in full production, or images of preternaturally ebullient workers.

BJP: How does photography intersect with design in North Korea?

NB: In the recent past photography was expensive and difficult to print on certain papers, therefore most of the graphics were simple, hand-drawn designs with limited use of colour palette to work smoothly with offset lithography printers. With the advent of digital printing and more competition from foreign goods, photography is now much more widely used.

There is a definitely a book to come out on North Korean photography – even within the mandate of propaganda there is great variety at the same time coupled with a great homogeneity! We worked with a North Korean photographer to shoot Pyongyang architecture for Wallpaper Magazine in 2002 and their photography is superb, very much in the uber-retro cool style required for the magazine

BJP: Do you think there’s something particular about the way that North Korea presents itself through photography? Or is it the same as in other regimes? 

NB: No great differences. North Korean photography is not for decoration but for a strict and controlled purpose. They do use photography for levity (photography of nature, historic scenes, happy kids etc) but it is very one dimensional in aesthetic and spiritual content. There is no abstract art or photography in North Korea. There is a fascination with 3D lenticular postcards but I have not seen any greater depth than that.  

BJP: Do all governments use photography to promote themselves and their countries in some way?  

NB: In North Korea everything is at least nominally run by the State and thus every image has to be passed and approved at some point by someone in some position of authority to do so. There is nothing visually shown that is not meant to be there. There is no other place with anything like this degree of control.

Made in North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in the DPRK by Nicholas Bonner is published by Phaidon (priced £24.95). https://uk.phaidon.com The exhibition of the same title is going on show from 23 February-13 May at House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross, London N1C 4BH https://www.houseofillustration.org.uk/home

A postcard presentation set published in 1977. A magician performs his best floral tricks
Postcards from a presentation set featuring the Pyongyang National Circus
The Monument to Party Foundation that was built on the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Worker’s Party of Korea (1945-1995)
Cards from a presentation pack of postcards of famous sites in Pyongyang. View east over the Taedong River to the Juche Tower
A postcard presentation set published in 1977. The People’s Army Circus, which was built in 1964

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy