Discover a hidden country
through the Pantone® color chart
From the 1950s Stalinist Architecture to the buildings of the late 1970s', from the pastel walls to the Propaganda posters, from the traditional dress of the mass dancers to the student uniform, from the Pyongyang metro to the countryside, the color palette of North Korea offers a fascinating glimpse of the architectural, political and ideological history of the country.
Work: Graphic design | Personal project | Software: Photoshop, InDesign
A few years ago, I stayed in Seoul for a few days after a business trip. At this time, I was working for a famous Korean Company. During this stay, I met a teacher who invited me to visit her school. I had no idea that it was a really special school: when I met the students, it was explained to me that they had escaped the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) and were now in a special program supporting the North Korean refugees.
One year later, I thought it was the perfect timing to go to North Korea and try to see for myself what the country really looks like. Pyongyang was not the sad communist city I had expected, only made from grey and brutal soviet-style concrete buildings. I was really surprised by the pastel color palette of the city architecture and interior design.
Then, I discovered how much the analysis of these colors could teach us about the history and the reality of the country. Because Pantone® is one of the most popular color systems used in the world, I thought that identifying the closer color reference in the Pantone® guide would be an interesting and easier way to visually share this analysis with people.
In the end, the Pantone® colors from North Korea definitively don't look like the last design trends but it tell us a lot. Indeed, as everybody knows, North Korea is a deeply hidden country and as a visitor, you only see what is shown to you. But if you look at the colors of the architecture, the landscapes, the people's outfit, you will access a small piece of the "real" North Korea, a country built first under the Soviet influence and then according to a unique and unprecedented state-ideology.
DANDONG STATION / PANTONE® 7476 C
Accessing North Korea from China with the K27/28 Beijing-Pyongyang train takes approximately 24 hours. The train stops in Dandong for the Chinese border control. Before taking another train to Pyongyang, an extensive border control by North Korea takes place in Sinuiju. For around one hour and sometimes more, the border officers collect and check all electronics devices and books, looking for anything listed as forbidden by the government: critical of DPRK, religious or pornography content, North Korea travel guides...
The green color brings up the importance of the military system in place in North Korea, while the red refers to the communist past. In recent years, there has been great emphasis on the Songun or "military-first" idea. Indeed, according to the official state-philosophy, named Juche in Korean, true socialism can be achieved through strong self-reliance and independence of the country. Actually, the references to communism were removed from the North Korean constitution in 2009.
MASS DANCES / PANTONE® 16-2120 TPX WILD ORCHID
Mass dances are held for celebrating some national holidays and some specific events. They usually involve students. Men wear the usual student uniform when the woman put on a joseon-ot, the traditional Korean dress.
Besides these formal mass dance events, the social clubs also organize some dance parties where many young men and women can meet. Women are required to wear a joseon-ot during these events or when they are working as touristic guide at some specific places, in tribute to the cultural heritage of the country.
The colorful traditional dress contrasts with the monotone colors of the uniforms and the outfits worn everyday by the population.
Actually, the colors of the joseon-ot come from "The Ying-yang and the five elements" Philosophy, originated from China and called Eumyangohaeng in Korean. The five elements that compose our world — fire, water, tree, metal or gold, and earth — are symbolized by the Obangsaek, a set of 5 primary colors: red, black, blue, white, and yellow. They are directly inspired by the nature and its seasons. These five colors have each its own significations.
Finally, the combination of each of the colors of Obangsaek gives birth to Ogansaek, another set of five colors: green, light blue, bright red, sulphur yellow, and violet.
The Ogansaek/Ogansaek palette of colors are probably the brighter and richer one we can observe in North Korea and give us a better understanding of the choice of tones by the artists, architects and designers there.
PROPAGANDA POSTER / PANTONE® 379 C
Propaganda posters encourage the sense of community and hard work, promote agriculture and sciences and support the militaristic and anti-American communication campaigns. With restricted access to the internet, posters are still an effective way to disseminate some public information and the government's ideology to the population.
Tremendous colors are used to catch the eye of the reader but they are also widely symbolic. Red is the color of communism but firstly represents the passion. Gold and yellow represent the glory and the prosperity. Blue symbolizes the peace, the harmony and the integrity. Black, often used in anti-American and anti-Japanese posters, refers to darkness and evil.
When the evolution of the propaganda messages reflects the history of the country, it's amazing to notice that the style of the posters has not change since the 50s: a background related to the topic and one person on the foreground, communicating the message to the audience and of course a large worded slogans.
REAL VS. FAKE SKY / PANTONE® 7702 C
Another specificity of the Propaganda is the omnipresence of pictures to the Glory of the "Great Leaders". Present at every home, office and school and public place, it is a reminder of the former heads of state, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung. This shows to the population that the leaders are looking after everyone and will be always present in their lives.
Based on the Ogansaek colors, light blue is a combination of the primary blue and white. According to the aforementioned Obangsaek, blue means new birth, brightness, and clarity. It was typically used in clothes of maidens and vassals in palaces. Traditionally, Korean bride's dress and decorations are in red and blue. White refers to the truth, the life and the virginity. Most of the Leaders' paintings are portraits but they can also be pictured standing, smiling, looking at a further horizon with the background showing a sky that is always blue, a promise of a truly great future.
DPRK FLAGS / PANTONE® WARM RED C
Contemporary official North Korean history alleges that the Ramhongsaek Konghwagukgi or "blue and red-colored flag of the republic" was designed by Kim Il-Sung himself, but actually it was dictated by the Soviet Union during its occupation of the northern part of Korea, in 1947.
The meaning of the colors seems to come from both the traditional korean colors palette and the state-ideology. According to official North Korean texts, the blue stripe represents the unity of the country and the white stripe the purity of the Korean ethnicity and culture. When the red star stands for the revolutionary traditions, the red stripe represents the patriotism and determination, referring to the blood shed by the "Republic Patriots".
Note to the designers: following the North Korean official specifications, the red color reference is Hex #ed1c27 (RGB: 237/28/39) and the blue color reference is Hex #024fa2 (RGB: 2/79/162).
MANSUDAE ART STUDIO / PANTONE® 575 C
The Mansudae Art Studio, with 3000 workers and 1000 artists, is one of the largest art production center in the World. The artists come from the best North Korean academies, like the Pyongyang University. The studio covers diverse major art fields such as painting, drawings, ceramics, woodcuts or embroidery.
If the Studio has created one of the most important monuments of North Korea, it has also produced some huge projects – monuments, museums and stadiums – for some other countries and sells small pieces of artwork overseas.
The green color of the Studio worker’s uniform is not dissimilar to the standard military uniform color. In the world history, the design of the military uniform radically changed over time. Originally using some brilliant colors to be seen on smoky battlefields and to symbolize the glory of a Nation, some green variations — khaki, olive drab and later camouflage — were adopted when weapons became more efficient and troops more exposed on the battlefield.
A military uniform reinforce the feeling of pride, unity and solidarity of the wearer. In Soviet countries, it’s also a symbol that displays political loyalty. Thereby, the Mandsudae studio definitively seems to be an army of artists at the service of the government.
STUDENTS / PANTONE® BLACK 6 C
Since 1959, Education in North Korea is — theoretically — a state-financed universal education and currently consists of 12 compulsory years of studying, from elementary school to high school. Based on communist ideals, education is before everything political and ideological: from an early age, children are taught the Juche Philosophy and they must also receive a "Social Education", necessary to the rise of each new generation.
The university student’s uniform is composed of a grey or black blazer, black pants, red necktie and a black flat cloth cap. The cap comes from the communist heritage. Communist leaders like Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky or Mao adopted the mariner’s cap model, usually wear by workers at the time. This flat cloth cap or "Mao cap" is still strongly associated with the working class.
Communist cap colors used to be dark blue or army green with a red star badge. The North Korean version is black, color that means, in this specific case, honesty and honor. It usually includes a North Korean badge. Here it’s probably a badge with the insignia of the students’ school.
KIM IL-SUNG SQUARE / PANTONE® 17-0000 TCX FROST GRAY
After the destruction of Pyongyang during the Korean War, the architects could be free to build a new city answering to the ideal of the Juche Philosophy. Most of them studied in Soviet countries. In addition, some Soviet engineers and workers came to North Korea to help rebuild the country.
Thereby, the first period of reconstruction, from 1953 to 1961 is characterized first by a Neoclassical Stalinist, and then a brutalist architectural style that both gave birth to some spectacular architectural showpieces, celebrating the grandeur of the country, and some huge public spaces — squares, avenues, parks — facilitating public demonstrations.
Built in the center of Pyongyang in 1954, the Kim Il-Sung Square has a form and design that are pretty similar to the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It is a symbolic place where military parades and mass dances gather, to be featured by national and foreign media. Particularly during mass dance events, the bright colors of the traditional dresses contrast perfectly with the monochrome grey tone of the pavement.
VIEW FROM THE JUCHE TOWER / PANTONE® 7523 C
PYONGYANG BUILDING / PANTONE® 5483 C
In 1958, the fast completion of the first reconstruction plan gave birth to the term "Pyongyang speed". Besides the grandiloquent monuments, the reconstruction strategy, aligned with the Juche philosophy, was also supposed to focus on people and their housing needs.
But the miraculous high-speed reconstruction was possible only because of some homogeneous, affordable, and easy-to-build structures, giving priority to the quantity over the quality. In this context, the apartments buildings dedicated to the Pyongyang Nomenklatura were inspired by the kommunalka, the communal apartments built in Russia and in the Soviet Union to face the housing crisis.
The homogeneity of style can be explained by the fact that mostly all the architectural project were sponsored by the government and that the architects are asked to follow the ideas of the Juche aesthetic. The fascinating effect of the Pyongyang architecture comes non-only from the unexpected colorful building and interior design, but also from the kitsch Soviet-era tones and the axial symmetry.
PYONGYANG METRO / PANTONE® 577 C
The construction of Pyongyang metro, achieved in 1973, was financed by the Soviet Union and China. Today, it counts 2 publicly declared lines. Its 16 stations are named after some themes from the North Korean revolution and are characterized by an architecture rich in marble, propaganda mosaic walls, crystal chandeliers, and statues.
It’s one of the deepest metro systems in the world. Since it runs entirely underground, has no outside segments and some thick steel doors placed at the entrance of hallways, the stations can serve as bomb shelters.
There is no information available about it, but the train set design recalls the colors of the two lines. The original line, represented in red on the metro map, is named after the mythical horse Chollima, symbol of speed and perseverance, not without recalling the meaning of the red color in the Korean tradition. The more recent one, represented in green, is called Hyoksin, meaning "innovation". In the Korean culture, the green color represents the prosperity, a fresh start and auspicious beginnings.
MIRAE SCIENTISTS STREET / PANTONE® 16-0836 TCX RICH GOLD
The second phase of reconstruction occurred in the 70s and 80s. From 1961, North Korea decided to give priority to a more local designed architecture. At the same time, the government publicly contested the importance of the help received by some fraternal soviet countries and pretended that the first phase of the reconstruction was mostly achieved by the Korean themselves. In his treatise “On Architecture” (1991), Kim Jong-Il emphasizes again the architectural interpretation of the Juche philosophy, a "convenient, cozy, beautiful and durable" national style, "in taste with the masses" (sic).
Future Scientists Street, achieved in 2014, is one of the best examples of the late urbanization projects supposed to represent the "new DPRK". The Mirae Scientists Street Unha Tower or "Galaxy Tower" is the tallest and most eye-catching of the towers of the avenue. Built in a futurist style in less than one year, it is a symbol of the "Pyongyang speed" and the quest of a new economic growth. The white and blue reminds the colors used for the North Korean flag. The golden representation of a galaxy at the top of the tower symbolizes the importance given to sciences, one of the pillars of the Juche Philosophy and the pursuit of prosperity supported by continuous innovation.
COUNTRYSIDE / PANTONE® 329 C
But outside of the capital, urbanization has not occurred in the same way. Forty percent of the population lives in rural areas, still relying on traditional farming practices. Based on the Juche Philosophy, self-sufficiency in food production is an important goal for the government. Yet, the climate and soil conditions are not really favorable to farming: only 17 percent of the landmass is arable.
Along unpaved roads from Pyongyang to Southern city of Kaesong, the ochre landscapes of the impoverished areas are deprived of any grandiloquent architecture - except for the usual bronze statues to the glory of the leaders in some of the rural cities. There, the population is still living in the same traditional houses as before.
AFTER THE MASS DANCE / PANTONE® 11-4001 TCX BRILLIANT WHITE
The different symbols of North Korea counts, among others, two hybrid orchids created by non-Korean botanists. The first one, Kimjongilia was named after Kim Jong-Il, and the second one, Kimilsungia, after Kim Il-Sung. However, the national flower of the country is the Magnolia sieboldii. Originally called Hambak in Korean, it was renamed Mokran, supposedly by Kim Il-Sung.
Because of its white color, shape and beauty, the magnolia symbolizes the courage and the resistance of the Korean people. Its color also reminds the white stripe meaning of the North Korean Flag.
When we arrive in North Korea, it’s easy to be immediately fascinated by Pyongyang, a perfect spot for vintage-instagram-style pictures. But if we don’t look beyond this first impression, we miss a large part of the History of North Korea and another understanding of the dictatorial reality. It’s why the analysis of the colors used in North Korea is actually far more complex and interesting than imagined.
For the Soviet and North Korean Leaders, the reconstruction of Pyongyang was an unprecedented opportunity to use a city as an urban laboratory for turning theirs ideologies into reality. As a result, Pyongyang is neither really beautiful or ugly. It’s a unique architectural mix specific to the History of the country. A country that was first inspired by the Soviet ideology before rejecting the references to the communism. A country that wanted to reinvent itself but kept some pieces of the Korean Traditions.
The urbanization of North Korea is still supposed to reflect the application of the Juche Philosophy and the benefits for its people. As declaimed by one of the new 310 official propaganda slogans issued in 2015, the government’s will is well and truly to "turn the whole country into a socialist fairyland".
In fact, Pyongyang is a perfectly choreographed and idealist urban bubble, as an attempt to showcase the promise of the government. The city is a stage where the government can display the success of the Juche vision to the world. This is how the DPRK became two republics in one: A “Pyongyang Republic” and a “Republic of Everyone Else” (K. Oh, 2013).
The sweet pastel aesthetic of Pyongyang has a kind of anaesthetic effect, keeping far away the less-rosy reality of the country. Also, the salmon pink and baby blue colors might be seen as infantilizing, perfectly matching the image of paternalist leaders taking care of their children-like citizens.
North Korea has progressively given up the marble and parquet floors, inherited from the neoclassical Stalinist period, in favor of a more "modern" style, made of vinyl and plastic imported from China. Thus, in one hand, the population can be reassured that the government is keeping the promise of making the country a developed and modernized land. In another hand, even if it probably not the intention of the government, this back-to-the-future style immerse the visitor in a world with a strong taste of the 50s-60s.
Yet, the pastel colors are characteristic of a post-war period, when the WWII was over and the priority was given to some gentle, cozy, friendly tones. In addition to their intrinsic qualities — lightness and softness — it’s in this context that our mind started to associate the pastel colors with a feeling of serenity and reassurance. Thus, for few minutes, the government could almost make the visitors to forget they are in a dictatorial country.
Of course, it would be naive to think that in the world, design has only a utilitarian purpose. Thereby, some urbanism plans, architecture types and colors can give a sense of national identity, identify an urban area to a specific population, influence a certain kind of behavior.
Also, color design in architecture shouldn’t only be considered as a decoration effect. Some scientific studies have demonstrated that our reaction in a specific architectural environment is, in a large part, based on our sensory perception of color (G. Meerwein, 2007). In other words, it is highly likely that colors have the power to influence us, psychologically and physiologically. Last but not least, the association of a feeling to the symbolic meaning of some colors seem to be cross-cultural and transgenerational. For example, black has a negative connotation, when white, blue and green have a positive one, and red is perceived as a "strong" color (F.M. Adams, C. E. Osgood, 1973).
The analysis of the "Pyongyang case" teach us how Aesthetic can serve an ideology and be used in architecture and in the daily life in order to reinforce the power of a government, by influencing the population and the visitors’ feelings.
IF NORTH KOREA HAD A BRAND IDENTITY...
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