Not sure if you remember this or not, but everyone kind of went a little crazy back in December when the Seth Rogen and James Franco film The Interview was pulled from theatres because of so-called threats from North Korea. The film, which later became available for download online, deals with the assassination of Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. If you’ve never seen The Interview, I wouldn’t say that you’re really missing out on too much. Still, it put a comical spin on what life could be like in the rogue nation state.
As it turns out, in real life North Koreans like all kinds of things that you and I might like, even tattoo. This article from The Guardian takes a look at how tattoo has been and continues to be popular with North Korean men. And why shouldn’t it be? Too often people get caught up believing things about others based on information that isn’t accurate or information that doesn’t consider the individual. The sole difference between tattoo in North Korea and tattoo in the rest of the world is that tattoo in North Korea is used to praise their nation and their leader. Women in North Korea who get tattooed are looked down upon, but is that really so different than many other places on this planet? I’d say women being shamed for getting tattooed is a pretty common (not to mention unfortunate) reality no matter where you go, no matter how free of a society that you live in.
“There were plenty [of phrases] to choose from, like: Defend the Fatherland! Victory! and Battle! My father and uncle both have tattoos on their upper arms and biceps. They have ‘one against one hundred’ on their arms, to show how they could kill a hundred enemies in battle.”
Not all tattoos are political either, although they do tend to be the most common. It seems that in North Korea tattoos can come in a variety of forms, though there is one form that is completely off limits. No one is permitted any imagery whatsoever of Kim Jong-un or any of the family members.
Absent from the list of desired images, however, is anything associated with the Kim dynasty. Having a picture of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s smiling face emblazoned on your bicep would lead to swift punishment for all involved; while embodying the state with tattoos of government-approved images is tolerated, images of the ruling family are sacrosanct. The state holds the monopoly on the reproduction of such iconography.
Perhaps North Korea’s concept of what a tattoo is or should be isn’t the same as yours or mine and the quality of a North Korean tattoo likely wouldn’t be the best; tattoo ink and needles are difficult to come by and ever since sanctions were introduced against the DPRK, supplies like medical swabs have also not been consistently available. Regardless of its limitations and restrictions, seeing that tattoo is alive and well in a place like North Korea only further strengthens my belief that no matter where you go or how removed you are from what you might feel is the norm, tattoo exists. And if tattoo can exist there, then the desire to create, the desire to live and the desire to be human thrives, no matter how small.