Removing people, images, from photos helps dictators solves inconvenient narratives
Handling history is an uneasy thing for any dictatorship. The past contains many things which contradict the state’s ideology and official myths. So, it is quite logical that many authoritarian regimes have tried to erase undesirable facts from their history.
One of the most vivid examples is the editing of historical photos. The Soviet Union under Stalin was notorious for this, as is well-documented in David King’s study The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia. North Korea, being initially the creation of the USSR, adopted this practice as well.
Such editing of photos started in late 1950s, when North Korea started to distance itself from the Soviet Union and purges intensified. One can notice three topics considered unwanted by the Kim regime:
• Purged politicians
A somewhat tragicomical trait of communist states is to pretend that purged people never existed – or, at least, never appeared in public with current leadership. The North Korean shares this approach, which, by the way, is very convenient for a historian: when someone disappeared from photos, we can assume that this person is purged as well. Here is one example:
This is photo showing Kim Il Sung signing the Armistice Agreement after the Korean War. General Nam Il is giving him a pen, while Kim Tu Bong (the then-chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, purged in 1958) sits next to Kim Il Sung. The woman behind Nam Il is Pak Chong Ae, Chairman of the Central Committee of the Union of Democratic Women. Here is how the photo appeared after subsequent purges:
It is well-known that Kim Tu Bong was purged in 1957, but the fate of Pak Chong Ae was not so clear: She merely disappeared from North Korean press from 1966. There were rumors that she was purged but then pardoned, but the third photo presents us with the documented evidence that she is still considered a non-person in the DPRK.
The final version of the picture is of special interest:
In the 2010s the Rodong Sinmun started to publish colorized “historical” photos, all edited according to the current party line. This photo is one of them.
• Soviet presence.
Up to 1950, North Korea was hardly more than a puppet state of the Soviet Union and Soviet presence in the country was immense. However, as later North Korea started to assert that it was, in fact, Kim Il Sung who had defeated Imperial Japan and it was he who had built North Korea from the very beginning, the photos showing Soviet generals were subjected to heavy editing. This is probably the most famous example: Kim Il Sung giving his first public speech in North Korea on October 14, 1945.
• Traditional Korean flag.
Korea created its own flag in the 1880s. The flag, designed under obvious Japanese influence, featured a yin-yang symbol and four trigrams of the Chinese Book of Changes. This flag was in use in North Korea up to July 10, 1948, when it was changed in favor of the current one, but it is still the official state flag of South Korea. The usage of this flag in the middle 1940s utterly contradicts modern DPRK version of history – and is it erased from every single North Korea modern book or publication.
One of the victims of this flag censorship was the Liberation monument to the Soviet Army, first erected by the Soviet administration in Pyongyang in 1947. The original monument featured a Korean man shaking hands with a Soviet soldier, with both holding their respective flags. This picture was scrubbed out in 1959 and all protests by the Soviet embassy were dismissed.
WHO CONTROLS THE PRESENT CONTROLS THE PAST
Perhaps nothing has been such a vivid illustration of this phrase from 1984 that the practice of editing photos. It is quite likely that classified instructions about how it should be done do exist in North Korea, and, if we are lucky, we will get our hands on them after the regime falls.
Main image: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3F6xFIpgues&t=14m06s, photo editing by Fyodor Tertitsky : NK News