North Korea in American editorial cartoons

Historical images at a glance: North Korea in American editorial cartoons

Winfield, Betty H

Although editorial cartoons are among the most preferred parts of the newspapers,1 they have seldom been the topic of research, especially war cartoons. As a “communication of the quick,” the editorial cartoon offers clarity and amusement as well as a speedy message, Harrison argues, despite possible distortion from such simplification or exaggeration.2 He and others point out how editorial cartoons have long fascinated newspaper readers with a combination of realism, satirical drawings and caricatures often filled with parody, graphic outrage and even overt bias.3 In general, cartoon opinions represent political attitudes through visual satire as noted by Nir.4 With graphic political interpretations, many of which recall stereotypes, this study examines how editorial cartoons swiftly communicate particular political messages with historical references.

Certainly, there is scant or no research on cartoons’ images types and symbols. In particular, there is little scholarly work done on how the editorial cartoons use historical references, those easily recognizable images and symbols of the past or within the readers’ memories. For example, historical references might be analogies, similarities to a then present. Neustadt and May argue that historical analogies can be one technique used to analyze the past.5 For cartoons, past images and symbols would still be relevant and bare some insight into a current circumstance. The presumptions made in the cartoon would not only define the situation but also would help establish the concerns and aims of the day because of a recent past. Such uses of history would identify the problem and perhaps shed some light on options.

Thus, the purpose of this study is to examine how American editorial cartoons used historical references in their visual presentations during three wars or conflicts. Those confrontations occurred with North Korea during the Cold War. With no official, internal U.S. information agencies to push propaganda images, such as the World War II Office of War Information or the World War I Committee on Public Information, the American editorial cartoonists creatively initiated an American adversary, in this case, North Korea. For this study, we examined three major events for historical references from three decades concerning the Korean peninsula. They were the Korean War, June 25, 1950 – July 27, 1953; the capture of the Pueblo gun boat, January 23 – December 23, 1968; the killing of U.S. officers along the border of the South Korea and North Korea demilitarized zone, August 18, 1976, referred to as the DMZ.


The methods used here are twofold. The first is historical, using the editorial cartoon. Through a content analysis, we determined whether historical symbols and figures were used. An analogy would be the symbols or figures from an historical event or stereotypes of events, such as Nazi symbols or Hitler for World War II.

One broad research question was asked: How did editorial cartoonists use historical referents in editorial cartoons?

We examined 79 editorial cartoons for all three time periods from The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Constitution, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Des Moines Register and the Dallas Morning News. In particular, we looked for symbols and easily recalled referents that could be important for a “communication of the quick.”


Among the editorial cartoons for all three time-periods, only 7.6 percent of the cartoons used the history-related graphics. Of those, the greater percentage, 32.9 percent, used symbols, such as Uncle Sam and the “Stars and Stripes” to describe the United States and the “Kremlin” and the “Hammer and Sickle” to depict the Soviet Union. No such symbols depict North Korea.

All historical symbols related to the conflict between communism and democracy. During the Cold War, the United States generally represented the democracy, and the Soviet Union referred to communism, yet historical analogies were made to the previous war, World War II. The major enemy figure was Adolf Hitler, still recognizable as a “communication of the quick.” Only cartoons during the Korean War had easily recognizable historical figures from World War II. These were Hitler, Stalin and MacArthur, who were still involved in world events. In fact, cartoonists used Stalin and Hitler most frequently to depict the North Korean attack.

A cartoonist can use a historical figure to make a historical referent. Yet, about 80 percent of the cartoons examined here did not use historical figures. Yet, when figures were used, the people were recognizable World War II leaders. Both Hitler and Stalin were the most frequently used figures to depict the enemy or aggressor during the Korean War.


Among the various techniques to analyze the past, analogies are useful historical referents.6 To examine analogies from the past, Neustadt and May’s mini-method was used. This method separates the known from the “unclear” and the “presumed,” and “likenesses” and “differences.” These categories make it possible to clarify a current situation and its concern without any illusion.

During the Korean War, in the editorial cartoons what was known is that North Korea was strongly related to the Soviet Union. Many cartoons depicted the Korean War as one of the communist wars. Thus, the image of the Soviet Union was highlighted as an aggressor. In the Pueblo incident, what is known is that the negative image of North Korea was that of an independent country. In the DMZ incident, there is no common, clear entity because only three cartoons with historical references were examined. A June 1950 Chicago Tribune cartoon contained a figure of an old man writing “champion scoundrel of all time” on the schoolroom chalkboard. However, even within that small number, the cartoonists still depicted negative characteristics.

What is unclear is the American cartoonists’ lack of knowledge of North Korea and its history. Rather, most cartoons dealing with North Korean issues depicted images related only to the current event. Therefore, most of the content related to the Soviet Union or to communism, and the reasons for each war incident was left unexplained. For example, why did North Korea start the Korean War, and why did North Korea kill U.S. officers with axes? In the cartoons of the Korean War, cartoonists depicted the answers as the expansion of a communist country. In cartoons related to the Pueblo and DMZ incidents, there is also no clarification. The cartoonists simply depicted the incidents as spot news, as current happenings.

What one could presume from the Korean War cartoons is that the cartoonists may have felt patriotism and practiced self-censorship. They dealt with the Soviet Union and the war issue when the all-out World War II had only ended five years before. Also, the memory of the voluntary World War II censorship was all too recent. Cartoons then had been used as an effective propaganda tool to educate people and change their attitudes toward specific goals, such as defeating the Nazis and supporting the World War II Allies. As the new enemy, both the Soviet Union and North Korea were stereotyped in a negative manner by the cartoonists. On the other hand, the period of the Pueblo and DMZ incidents was not declared a war, but instead the incidents were regarded as isolated events. Thus, self-censorship was not needed or justified. The American cartoonists still continued to describe North Korea as an enemy. What is presumed in the Pueblo incident cartoons is a relationship with the Soviet Union, although it is not explicitly depicted. Such a presumption can be one more bit of evidence of how history was used in editorial cartoons.

Based on known, unclear and presumed factors, categories of likenesses and differences can be drawn. There are likenesses about the three war incidents in editorial cartoons. The images of North Korea in the editorial cartoons were overwhelmingly negative. Some cartoons depicted at least one or two Soviet Union symbols. Surprisingly, during the Korean War, more than 50 percent of the cartoons about North Korea were neutral. However, the reasons for each incident are not clear from the cartoons.

On the other hand, there are also differences among the depiction of the three incidents in the editorial cartoons. The primary difference is the main role of the cartoons. While cartoons of the Korean War described both North Korea and the Soviet Union, they primarily depicted the Soviet theme. However, in the cartoons of the other two incidents one or two decades later, North Korea was emphasized more often as an independent country.


This study showed that editorial cartoonists did not use historical elements frequently to explain contemporary issues. The cartoonists’ methods were limited to “communication of the quick.” If there was a historical referent, then the historical figures were recent ones. Historical referents may take too much explaining and defining and may not be easily recalled. The most-used historical techniques were analogies related to particular symbols or historical figures. Recalled factors like “Uncle Sam,” the “Hammer and Sickle” and the swastika carry much information. Also, the interpretation can be dependent on the context and the reader. Nir emphasized the meaning of visual rhetoric as “structured in a modular fashion and used interchangeably from one drawing to the next.”7 However, editorial cartoons are also closely related to the creation of stereotypes that are defined as “a form of perception… before data reach the intelligence,” according to Walter Lippmann.8 The analogies of stereotypical symbols and figures may be the better way to use history in editorial cartoons.


1. Elsa Mohn and Maxwell McCombs, “Who Reads Us and Why,” The Masthead 32, no. 4 (1980-81): 28.

2. Randall P. Harrison, The Cartoon Communication to the Quick (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1981), 12.

3. See too Daniel R. Fitzpatrick, As I Saw It: A Review of Our Times with 311 Cartoons & Notes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953),8.

4. Yeshayahu Nir, “U.S. Involvement in the Middle East Conflict in Soviet Caricatures,”Journalism Quarterly 54 (winter 1977): 697.

5. Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: the Use of History for Decision Makers (New York: The Free Press, 1986), 91. 6. Ibid.

7. Nir, “Soviet Caricatures, ” 697-98.

9. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Macmillian, 1922), 65.

By Betty H. Winfield and Doyle Yoon

Winfield is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of MissouriColumbia, and Yoon is a doctoral student in the School of journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Fall 2002

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