Hong Kong has a role to play in opening the world’s eyes to North Korea

Exhibition sponsored by University of Hong Kong of 20th-century propaganda posters from hermit nation shows city can do more to further understanding

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 January, 2018, 2:40pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 January, 2018, 9:47pm

What does Hong Kong have to do with North Korea? Not much at all, would be the immediate answer.

That could be partly due to the very low profile the country’s official representatives maintain in the city, and because there is hardly anything to draw Hongkongers to Pyongyang’s consulate here – none of the tourism promotions and cultural exchanges that diplomatic missions usually offer.

Instead, a more convenient way for people from this city to venture into North Korea is to cross the border from Dandong city in northeastern Liaoning province, which faces the North Korean city of Sinuiju. And, interestingly, they can use the Home Return Permit issued to them by mainland Chinese public security authorities for this cross-border trip, rather than the Hong Kong SAR passport for overseas travel, which needs a visa.

That was how I visited Pyongyang the one time I went there many years ago. The consulate here rarely accepts individual tourist applications.

It was, therefore, quite a surprise when a Hong Kong-registered tanker was recently seized and its crew members were detained by South Korean customs authorities for transferring oil to a North Korean vessel in international waters. The incident put Hong Kong under the international spotlight, also reminding people here that their city is not completely irrelevant or unconnected when it comes to the looming nuclear crisis in the region.

North Korea exposed: images of everyday life in the world’s most reclusive nation

Meanwhile, what effective role China can play in easing the tension is a matter of concern, as Beijing-Pyongyang relations have soured substantially these past few years.

While North Korea’s regime and nuclear brinkmanship continue to feature prominently in Hong Kong and international media coverage, less visible and understood is what daily life is like for its ordinary citizens. Of course, it’s not easy for foreign journalists to talk to people on the streets of what the West sees as the world’s most isolated nation.

It is therefore quite a pleasant surprise to see the University of Hong Kong sponsor a “North Korea’s Public Face” exhibition of 20th-century propaganda posters from the collection of Katharina Zellweger, a Swiss humanitarian aid volunteer turned research fellow on North Korea at Stanford University.

Visitors can see a note complimenting the Swiss and North Korean consulates for their assistance in staging the exhibition, although there is no further indication as to how Pyongyang’s representatives helped.

The event, which lasts until this weekend, is quite an eye-opener. I had my own experience visiting the university museum and gallery, where I saw many school children taking it all in.

“You should be able to get a glimpse of this unknown country and its people by carefully appreciating these posters,” a teacher was telling her pupils.

The posters depict cheerful workers, peasants and young people hailing party policies, cultural campaigns, education and sports. All are happy faces, whether that reflects the reality or not, and the focus of this exhibition is on agriculture and food production. That was Zellweger’s major area of interest when she travelled and lived in North Korea, dealing with such issues during the 1990s when there was a severe shortage of food.

“I hope to make a small contribution towards fostering a better understanding of a country about which little is still known ... These posters can be viewed as historical documents that accurately express the ways in which North Korea views both itself and the broader world,” is her message.

While it can also be viewed as total propaganda, Zellweger sees it as a window at least for outsiders to have another look into this unfamiliar country.

What is the real face of North Korea? There is no ready answer, but it can help to better understand its people. Hong Kong, under the “one country, two systems” principle, can be part of the picture in its own way.