Political art is everywhere in North Korea and often overwhelming in its size and hammer-and-sickle-hitting messages. One hammer, sickle and brush monument, built in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the North Korea’s Worker’s Party, in Pyongyang is 50 meters tall. [Source: Yannis Kontos, National Geographic, June 2008]

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “North Korea has distinct graphic arts related to a mixture of Korean traditional drawing and the techniques of western watercolor. Large mural art is commonly seen inside the public buildings in North Korea, and the theme is usually leader worship — typically Kim Il Sung in the middle, larger than other people surrounding him. People of al ages, occupation, and dress circle him with adoration and admiration in their eyes. The commission of such art is done by the state, and in this sense, there is no private artist. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Also commonly seen are large sculptures depicting history patriotically, such as Korean War heroes and anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters; there are usually portrayed in the Soviet style. No individual artist is endorsed in this type of public art display. One cannot miss in North Korea ubiquitous statues and sculptures, paintings and even embroidery art that portray in beautified form Kim Il Sung and his family. These are displayed in public spaces; in terms of art to purchase privately, there are paintings and other products that use traditional Korean (or East Asian) ink paint or oil paint. These are most readily found in the international hotel shops and are not readily available for ordinary citizens to purchase.”

Book: “North Korean Posters The David Heather Collection” by David Heather; Videos: North Korean Art Comes to Washington; CCTV America: DPRK Art: The Evolution of Socialist Realism; Voice of America, Chinese Service: Korean Painting US Debut; Articles: DCist: Beyond Propaganda: AU Museum Holds The First Exhibit of Socialist Realism Paintings from North Korea; US News and World Report: The Art of Propaganda: An exhibition in the U.S. shows creative expression in North Korea serves a political purpose; Washington City Paper: At the American University Museum, A Look At North and South Korean Art; The Creators Project (Vice News): Rare North Korean Paintings in the US; National Geographic: This North Korean Art is More Than Propaganda

Social Realism and Stalin-Influenced Art

Much of the art in North Korea is influenced by the Social Realism movement of the Soviet Union and Stalin-era Soviet art. By the 1930s in the Soviet Union, the government was limiting all forms of artistic expression to the themes of socialist realism, forbidding abstract forms and the exhibition of foreign art. Motivated in part by rebuffs from the Russian intellectual elite, Stalin used art as means of creating an Socialist paradise in which he was the messiah. Stalin wanted artists to be "engineers of the soul." He banned independent artist groups.

During his rule Stalin sanctioned a form of state art officially known as Socialist Realism. "Geared to a naive, not to say brutish mass public barely literate in artistic matters," wrote TIME art critic Robert Hughes, “Soviet Socialist realism was the most coarsely idealistic kind of art ever foisted on a modern audience."

Social Realism has been defined as "concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary accordance with...ideological training of workers on the spirit of Socialism." It appeared on paintings hoisted in public and on posters splashed all over cities Subjects in the works including spirited workers, heroic soldiers, uplifting leaders. Posters of "shock workers" (people who worked tirelessly for Socialism) show handsome, muscular men with smile son their faces performing some kind of menial chore in front of glistening factories.

Approved Soviet-era culture was dominated by Socialist Realism. One man who lived through the Stalin era told the New York Times, "Art back then was only a reflection of beautiful dream—not of the slave labor of collective farmers or those who dug the canals, mines and built factories than in the long destroyed or Russian land."

Stalin ordered the Soviet Union’s top art academies to emphasize technical skill and powerful portrayal of figures and landscapes. One art critic told Newsweek the subjects of socialist realist painting were “supposed to depict happy, young, smiling faces and full bellies. The mood of the work was always supposed to be celebratory; it didn’t matter if you were painting birthday parties or electrical wires.” The Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky called Socialist Realism, “poor art for poor people.”

Monuments in Pyongyang and Kim Il Sung Statues in North Korea

Tower of the Juche Idea is a slender soaring monument over 170 meters high, which makes it taller than the Washington Monument. Topped by a red flame, it was built in 1982 to mark Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday. The tower is said to be made of 25,550 stones—one for everyday of Kim’s 70 years. An elevator will take you to the top for an impressive view of Pyongyang. Etched in stones at the base, are messages trumpeting the virtues of juche.

"The Korean people," American journalist Peter Hyun was told by his North Korean guide , built the tower to express "their ardent wish to glorify forever his immortal revolutionary exploits... After leading the 20-year-long anti-Japanese struggle for victory and accomplishing the cause of national liberation, Great Leader Kim Il Sung made his first historical speech here upon his triumphant return to the fatherland October 14, 1945."

When asked how much the Tower of Juche cost the guide replied, "this monument to the great leader was built with the love and the sweat of the people. How many people? It is not important. How much money it cost? That, too, is irrelevant. For our Great Leader Kim Il Sung, we were willing to lay down our lives, if necessary."

Mansudae Grand Monument is a 70-meter (220-foot) -tall, high-polished bronze statue of Kim Il Sung. Everyday groups of schoolchildren, party elite and ordinary North Koreans place flowers at the foot of the huge statue, which is located on Mansu Hill and flanked by statues and reliefs of triumphant workers. Kim stands with his arm raised over a skyline dotted with vast monuments dedicated to his achievements since the Korean War. Often people march to the rhythm of martial music.

Foreigners are urged to bow before the colossal statue of Kim Il Sung. Don't mimic the statue's pose or take photographs from the waist up. Full length shots only. Foreign visitors are often obligated to leave a flowers at the statue. When visiting the statue of Kim Il Sung and the Martyr's Cemetery in Pyongyang, foreign guests are often asked to contribute as much as US$50 per groups to buy a bouquet of flowers that is placed at the base of the statue.

Chollima Statue is a representation of a mythological winged horse that flew great distances during the day and performed heroic feats in Korea's time of need. North Korea has used the legendary creature to motivate its people to strive for excellence. The North Korean version symbolizes the speed in which socialization enabled Pyongyang to be rebuilt after the Korean War.

Huge Statues showing Kim Il Sung with his armed raised have been erected all over the country. Likeness of the leader dominates Pyongyang and every town square in North Korea. By one count there are over 35,000 statues of Kim Il Sung in North Korean. According to Associated Press: Statues, mosaics or paintings of “eternal president” Kim Il Sung and his son, “dear leader” Kim Jong Il, grace virtually every large plaza, village center, significant factory and meaningful nook or cranny in the country. In 2015, North Korea’s third leader Kim Jong-un rush ordered Mansudae studio “to make sure every province had a Kim Jong Il statue to stand beside his father. Kim Jong Un is not yet the object of similar immortalizations or of the pins that all adult North Koreans wear over their hearts. Mansudae officials say the young Kim is “much too humble of personality for that.” [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, December 27, 2016]

Mansudae Art Studio

Much of the art seen in North Korea is produced by the Mansudae Art Studio. With a labor force of approximately 4000 people, 1000 of which are artists, the studio covers an area of over 120,000 square meters, 80,000 of which is indoor. Some say the Mansudae Art Studio is the largest art production center in the world. It is certainly the largest and most important in North Korea. Mansudae Art Studio was founded six years after the end of the Korean War(1950-1953) which pretty much destroyed Pyongyang. [Source: Official Web-Site Abroad of the Mansudae Art Studio, Pyongyang]

Mansudae Art Studio is one of North Korea’s most venerable cultural institutions. It is located in a huge complex of nondescript concrete buildings on a sprawling, walled-off campus with armed guards in the heart of Pyongyang. It produces out everything from watercolor tigers to massive mosaics and is best known for its huge, bronze, monumental statues, several of which have ended up in Africa. Mansudae was created in 1959 by Kim Il Sung himself. It has generated an estimated 38,000 statues and 170,000 other monuments for domestic use and, according to the website of its overseas representative office. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, December 27, 2016]

Mansudae Art Studio is divided in 13 creative groups, seven manufacturing plants and more than 50 supply departments. The artistic works realized at the Mansudae Art Studio range from oil paintings to bronze sculptures, from Korean Paintings (ink on paper) to ceramics, from woodcuts to embroideries, from jewel paintings (made with precious and semiprecious stones reduced to powder) to charcoal drawings and much more. Some of Mansudae’s artists devote their time completely to painting portraits of Kim Il Sung.

According to the North Korean government: The Mansudae Art Studio is not a sort of chain factory, like some Chinese and other Oriental centers, nor a school, but a very high quality art production center. The vast majority of the major art works of the country have been realized by Mansudae Art Studio artists. Their ages go from mid 20’s to mid 60’s and almost all are graduates of the very demanding Pyongyang University. Over half of the Merit Artists and of the People’s Artists, the two highest awards an artist can receive in DPRK, are or have been associated with the Mansudae Art Studio. According to Reuters: American basketball star Dennis Rodman was presented with a bust of his head made by artists at Mansudae during one of his trips to North Korea to meet leader Kim Jong Un in 2013. He gave a press conference in New York with the bust of his own head on a table in front of him.

According to the BBC: Mansudae “caters for North Korea's considerable domestic propaganda needs. The huge statues, murals and banners you see being dutifully applauded at military processions - as well as the poster images that surround North Korean daily life - are all made by its 4,000 staff. "It's in the heart of Pyongyang, Mansudae is the name of the district," says Pier Luigi Cecioni, an Italian who is the sole representative of the art factory to the outside world. "Actually, it's more of a campus than a factory, more of a studio, the biggest in the world." They've just produced a giant embroidery for the Benetton fashion family and fitted out a museum in Cambodia, but it's in Africa that Mansudae Overseas Projects (MOP) has found the keenest appetite for its work.” [Source: BBC, Lawrence Pollard, February 16, 2016]

Art is a profitable export for North Korea and helps the regime earn hard currency. Rudiger Frank, professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna, told the Los Angeles Times collectors can travel to North Korea to shop for art, said or works can be acquired at specialized galleries in more easily accessible locations, such as Beijing. Art can even be ordered directly from North Korean artists or the associations they work for.

Art Scene in Modern North Korea

According to AFP: The North's art scene is tightly controlled — there is no abstract art, which is regarded as anti-revolutionary by authorities — and artists are graded by the state, with the highest level being "People's Artists" like Jung and Song. [Source: AFP, January 29, 2015]

Jean Lee wrote in U.S. News and World Report:“Works from the late 1960s and early 1970s glorify guerrilla warfare against Japanese colonial rule (1910-45) and military conquests during the Korean War (1950-53), two conflicts that to this day form the backbone of North Korea's nationalistic, xenophobic identity. Works from the 1980s highlight construction and economic development. Pak Tae Yon's "Victors of 100 Days' Fervent Endeavor" depicts workers jubilant for surpassing a "speed campaign" goal. A quarter-century later, North Korea is still carrying out speed campaigns – the country is in the midst of a 200-day campaign now – revealing how important it is for factories, plants and farms to meet state-issued quotas. [Source: Jean Lee, U.S. News and World Report, August 8, 2016]

“Talented art students are plucked for training at an early age, and the most gifted vie for entry to the Pyongyang University of Fine Art. From there, the best are recruited to join state-run art studios where they serve as chroniclers for the state, party and military. Artists compete to have their works selected as "national treasures" housed at the Korean Art Gallery, North Korea's art museum in Pyongyang. Scores also are sent abroad – to China, Cambodia, Qatar, Namibia and elsewhere — to work on art and construction projects outsourced to the North Koreans, from massive bronze statues of African leaders to a history museum in Cambodia that opened last year, according to Ji Zheng Tai, owner of the Mansudae Art Gallery in Beijing, which sells works by North Korean artists.

“Until the 1960s, North Korea used the same term as the South Koreans, "dongyanghwa," which translates as "East Asian art," for the style of painting traditional to China, Japan and Korea. However, the advent of nationalistic policies laid out by North Korea's late President Kim Il Sung in the 1960s meant giving North Korea's art a new name, and a specific socialist and nationalist focus.”

North Korean Propaganda Art

▪J ean Lee wrote in U.S. News and World Report: “Art is propaganda in North Korea. Posters emblazoned with the latest political slogans serve as advertisements for the ruling Workers' Party. Massive portraits of the late leaders loom over the lobbies of Pyongyang's most important buildings while intricate mosaics depicting scenes from legends of their exploits dot the countryside. There's an ugly side to the propaganda as well: Virulent, gory posters depicting Americans torturing Koreans, and North Koreans bayoneting Americans, are part of routine anti-U.S. education. [Source: Jean Lee, U.S. News and World Report, August 8, 2016]

On an exhibition of North Korean art, with more than 100 oils, watercolors, traditional Korean ink paintings and posters from the Korean Art Gallery in Pyongyang, held at Vienna's MAK: Austrian Museum for Applied Arts/Contemporary Art May-September 2010, Julia Damianova wrote in the Los Angeles Times: A significant portion of the show is dedicated to monumental portraits of Kim Il Sung and his son/successor, Kim Jong Il. They are either walking proudly together or are featured in scenes with peasants, soldiers or children in front of lush, blossoming gardens. One work, titled "Kim Jong Il, the Supreme Commander of the KPA, Deeply Concerned Over the Soldiers' Diet," shows Kim looking into a cooking pot. Another is a portrait of Kim Jong Il staring at paperwork on his desk, a cigarette burning in his hand. The night sky dominates the view from the window at his side. The canvas is called "The Endlessly Burning Light of the Party Center." [Source: Julia Damianova, Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2010]

“Along with portrayals of smiling, neatly dressed citizens, children with rosy cheeks under baby blue skies and happy peasants toiling amid stunning scenery, there are brightly colored prints in a style reminiscent of the Soviet poster tradition. The North Korean ones transmit messages — complete with exclamation marks — such as "Utmost efficiency in the use of electricity!", "Spare every drop of water!" and "Even more consumer goods for the people!" In North Korea, "art assumes a social function and is subordinate to the revolutionary process," organizers of the Viennese exhibit said in a news release. North Korean artists are all members of state artist associations and have regular working hours. They receive a monthly salary for producing a certain number of works that "communicate the correct attitude, behaviors, morality and values."

North Korean Posters and Propaganda Art

North Korean Socialist Realist art is on full display in propaganda posters that feature vibrant images of brave soldiers, happy and well-fed peasants, and a heroic and compassionate leader. Hand-painted, the posters display the latest political slogans that are repeated in newspaper editorials, government declarations, and compulsory study sessions throughout the country. They are best viewed not as the reality of North Korea, but rather a vision of the country as promoted by its regime and depicted by its state sponsored artists.

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: For seven long years, Song Byeok performed the soulless work of drawing idyllic North Korean propaganda posters for Kim Jong Il's totalitarian regime. The intricate images he produced were dictated by the state. Song was handed a sketch, always of people happy and smiling, which the young artist dutifully brought to life with brush and paint. "You had to do exactly what they wanted," he recalled. "If you did one little thing differently, your whole family could be imprisoned as enemies of the state. But I never questioned the work. At the time, I was completely brainwashed." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, February 6, 2011]

Foreigners sporadically display collections of propaganda posters of the type sold to tourists and popular abroad as kitsch. Fine art, however, is largely kept apart from tourists.While propaganda posters are the genre best known to foreigners, [Source: Jean Lee, U.S. News and World Report, August 8, 2016]

North Korean Chosonhwa Socialist Realism

An exhibition of contemporary North Korean art — "Contemporary North Korean Art: The Evolution of Socialist Realism" — put together by Georgetown University professor BG Muhn, was held at the at the Katzen Arts Center, American University, Washington D.C. in June, July and August, 2016. The exhibition sought to broaden understanding of North Korean art beyond stereotypes of propaganda and kitsch to show sophisticated and nuanced expressive achievements. It investigates previously unrevealed evidence of North Korean artistic experimentation and that nation’s particular evolution of Socialist Realism within its own culturally homogeneous context. [Source: College of Arts and Sciences, American University]

Special focus is given to the development of Chosonhwa, North Korea’s predominant painting medium that is revered as the nations most refined. Chosonhwa is traditional Oriental ink-and-brush painting on rice paper that absorbed Socialist Realism influences in the 1950s and has since progressed to become its own distinct art form. While working within prescribed thematic bounds, DPRK artists often succeed in conveying profound human emotion. On view will be important Chosonhwa works from the 1960s through the present, including monumental tableaus, that clearly reflect the DPRK’s special blend of Socialism with Korean characteristics.

Gabe Bullard wrote in National Geographic: Chosonhwa “uses ink and rice paper instead of oil paints and canvas. This limits how much layering artists can do, and leads to innovative techniques — for instance, a painting of a tiger includes several blank spaces to depict white snow. It also gives the paintings a sense of delicacy when viewed up close, which is surprising, given the strength of the political messages many of them send...Approaching the works, there’s the initial feeling of being overwhelmed by the size — many are more than 10 feet wide. Then there’s the puzzlement that comes from seeing scenes that, to anyone outside of North Korea, seem either overly melodramatic or entirely implausible — workers smiling as they tap water from a dam, a soldier on horseback leaping over a burning railroad bridge, a man holding onto a boat ready to fire his pistol at an enemy. ” [Source: Gabe Bullard, National Geographic, July 20, 2016]

Muhn made numerous study trips to Pyongyang and had unprecedented access to the original works and their artists. He says, “I visited many art studios including Mansudae Art Studio, the largest state-run art studio in the world, and interviewed numerous artists and art historians. It has been an awakening experience to explore the heart of North Korea’s ever-evolving Chosonhwa, the only variety of Socialist Realism that remains in active production today.”

The exhibition featured paintings prized by North Korea, as well as newer pieces from the regime's state-run studios.Jean Lee wrote in U.S. News and World Report: “They date from the late 1960s to the present, and range from bucolic landscapes that hew closely to traditional Asian painting to enormous, dramatic murals that show off feats that the regime wants immortalized. Some see the paintings as a chance to decipher Pyongyang's psychology through its propaganda. Many of the paintings feature military motifs while others celebrate laborers and factory workers, another prime focus of North Korean artwork. And several of the more recent works capture some of the economic changes taking place in the Kim Jong Un era. This exhibition highlights the art form most revered by the regime: ink-and-brush paintings known in North Korea as "josonhwa," or "North Korean art." [Source: Jean Lee, U.S. News and World Report, August 8, 2016]

Examples of North Korean Art

Jean Lee wrote in U.S. News and World Report: “A 2015 work by six artists, "Joyfully Anticipating Completion of the Dam," depicts the construction of the Huichon hydroelectric power station, a project central to the current propaganda because it now provides most of the electricity lighting up Pyongyang. The painting crackles with energy and activity. "To me, it's like a spiritual enlightenment because they don't really express their own expression as an artist," Muhn said. "You have to have harmony among the chosen artists. It's not personal glory." The newest pieces, including one that remains a work in progress, highlight the evolving nature of modern art in North Korea. "Joy from the First Smelting," a 2013 painting by Sin Yong Sang and Ri Hyon Ok, depicts a worker, hand resting on his smelting tool, a look of exhausted satisfaction on his face. The painting is almost impressionistic in style, with his face in colorful detail while the rest of his figure is conveyed through bare, broad brushstrokes in black and white. [Source: Jean Lee, U.S. News and World Report, August 8, 2016]

Sea Rescue in the Dark: portrays South Korean fisherman calling out to North Korean fishermen for help as the sea roils around them. The painting, allegedly based on a real incident, was completed in 1997. It's a surprising perspective considering how often those waters have been the site of fatal confrontation between North and South Koreans, and that the work was created when North Korea was undergoing a famine. The painting has been compared to "The Raft of the Medusa," a French painting from 1818. Note the through line starting in the lower left with the man's arm, continuing through the rope to the upper right, and crossing a line set by the waves. Also note: multiple artists' signatures in the bottom left corner, showing this was a collaborative work. Artwork by Kim Song Kun

A Worker: was made in 2014 and incorporates modern brush techniques, most visible in the lower right corner. In the work Choe Chang Ho employs color and a few strong brushstrokes to convey the man's physical strength as well as his perseverance. And in "Application to Become a Party Member," completed this year, Kim In Sok leaves parts of the canvas unfinished, a deft way to remind the viewer of the hand behind the brush. That painting, of a wounded soldier, is striking as well because of the focus of the work. It depicts a soldier who in his last moments of life aspires not to military glory but to membership to the Workers' Party – a telling shift that hints of the regime's current mission to bring the military into the party's fold.

Farewell: from 1977, depicts a tender moment as a young woman in military uniform wades into water to bid farewell to an injured soldier already pulling away to head back into battle. Bombs explode in the water behind them near a boat full of weeping, terrified children behind them. At first glance, the works look almost simplistic. But Muhn says he was drawn to the expressiveness of the figures' eyes. "The expressed emotions are theatrical and melodramatic," Muhn says in the exhibition catalog. "However, there is also an unexpected solemnity and serenity coupled with a sense of strong determination in these works." Melodramatic scenes like this appear frequently in the paintings. This work is from 1977. Artwork by Pak Ryong Sam

Soldiers of Mt. Rohuk: (1976) features smiling soldiers traveling through the countryside in this 1976 painting. Artwork by Ri Wan Son. The Security Patrol: (2005) is an example of the modern Socialist Realism that North Korea continues to produce. Some of it is exported to other countries seeking this style of work. Artwork by Kim Ryong Rain Shower at the Bus Stop: (2016) shows happy commuters in Pyongang. The woman at the center of this 2016 painting by Kim In Sok was re-sketched frequently over the two years the work was in progress. Artwork by Kim In Sok

Charging Forward to the Battlefield: As might be expected, war is a common theme in North Korean paintings, as with this one from 1970. Artwork by Kim Yong Kwon

Non-Propaganda Art from North Korea

An exhibition of non-propaganda art from North Korea called “Hidden Treasures” was held near Seoul at the Kintex Centre in Goyang, South Korea Steven Borowiec wrote in the Los Angeles Times: The most eye-opening pieces for those interested in the mysterious country will likely be works by Gong Cheong Kwon that appear to depict the courtyards of regular North Korean households. Some of those show private vegetable gardens and a range of possessions. Inside the houses are a map of a unified Korea, and a picture of a woman in traditional Korean attire can be seen hanging on a wall, but there are no portraits of the country's ruling Kim dynasty, which are found in every building in North Korea. Such mundane yet telling details generally don't appear in any of the state propaganda images. [Source: Steven Borowiec, Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2015]

“While the images at "Hidden Treasures" contain no overtly pro-regime messages, there is also nothing in them that indicates the deprivation and repression of human rights widespread in North Korea. All human figures appear content and well fed. The range of emotion on subjects' faces is narrow, either smiles or contemplation. All mountains are thickly wooded, with no sign of the widespread deforestation documented in the country. One painting features a woman in a bright-red bikini, unusual for typically prudish North Korea, where women, when not pictured in military uniform, are usually shown in long, loose-fitting skirts and dresses.

“Visitors can take in 150 works by 70 North Korean artists, all of which are strictly nonpolitical and arranged according to theme: landscape, portrait, animals and the four seasons. There is little about the works to mark them as distinctly North Korean. Many depict rugged, mountainous landscape, albeit more colorfully than the widely known propaganda images. Scenes of ponds and mountain trails use a wide range of lively greens not seen in North Korea's stark political images."When we show these works, people don't even recognize that they're North Korean," said Frans Broersen, one of three Dutch collectors who purchased the art from the Pyongyang government and some directly from the artists over a series of visits.

According to AFP: “Despite the perennial tensions between the two Koreas, Broersen's show is by no means the first of North Korean art in the South. At one point such exhibitions were quite common, although they dried up after 2010 when contact was essentially frozen following the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. Broersen's paintings had to be vetted by the South Korean authorities, and he agreed to remove three works whose backgrounds included some political slogans. [Source: AFP, 29 January 2015]

North Korean Painters

Among North Korea’s most renowned painters are Son U-Yong and Jung Chang-Mo. Its is difficult though to tell if the works are genuinely theirs. According to AFP: “Star artists often produce multiple copies of their most popular works which are also copied by other artists, so that more people can see them. "That's one of the things that is so unique about the North Korean system," Carey Park, an art expert at South Korea's National University of Cultural Heritage, said, noting that it also cranks out a lot of works specifically tailored for foreign consumption. This makes finding high quality pieces, with a clear provenance and with genuine roots in the fabric of North Korean society, extremely difficult. [Source: AFP, 29 January 2015]

Kim Jacal and Jnun Hak are two oil painters from North Korea that worked in Mudanjiang, a city in southeastern Heilongjiang, China. Both painters graduated from Pyongyang Academy of Arts, which is the top academy of arts in the country. In the DPRK, only those from "elite families" and who pass the rigorous selection process are qualified to enter the academy. The bachelor degree for painting takes eight years, while oil painting takes seven years. [Source: China Daily, August 9, 2013]

North Korean defector Song Byeok had his UK exhibition in Britain in London in May 2017. Song was a propaganda artist before defecting to South Korea where he now paints works satirising his homeland. John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: For seven long years, Song Byeok performed the soulless work of drawing idyllic North Korean propaganda posters for Kim Jong Il's totalitarian regime. The intricate images he produced were dictated by the state. Song was handed a sketch, always of people happy and smiling, which the young artist dutifully brought to life with brush and paint. "You had to do exactly what they wanted," he recalled. "If you did one little thing differently, your whole family could be imprisoned as enemies of the state. But I never questioned the work. At the time, I was completely brainwashed." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, February 6, 2011]

“Born in rural North Korea, the son of an electrician, Song took a liking to art and began making sketches of the world around him. As an adult, working as a laborer in Pyongyang, the capital, Song was offered work in the propaganda unit by a government official who had noticed a sketchbook of his. Emma Batha of Reuters wrote: “During his years as a propaganda artist, Song said he painted images of happy soldiers, farm laborers and factory workers with slogans like "Let's walk forever with Kim Il Sung". One slogan he remembers painting is "Will you live as free people or slaves?" The irony, he says, is that North Koreans really do live as slaves. [Source: Emma Batha, Reuters, May 9, 2017]

“Growing up, Song says he revered North Korean founder Kim Il Sung as a god, and was "100 percent" loyal to his son and successor Kim Jong Il. "I really believed we were the happiest people (in the world) because we had been brainwashed since childhood," he told Reuters. The turning point came when Song was sent to a labor camp, which he likened to the concentration camps of World War Two. In the mid to late 1990s, North Korea was hit by a devastating famine which killed hundreds of thousands of people. As his family grew weak from hunger, Song and his father decided to cross the Tumen river to China to find food to bring back. When his father was swept away Song asked two border guards to help look for his body. He was immediately arrested and tortured. His six months in labor camp nearly killed him, but also opened his eyes.

“Song now paints works satirising his homeland. Humor makes his work more accessible, says Song who has also exhibited in the United States and Frankfurt. Many of these slogans are incorporated into his satirical work, their meanings subverted by the accompanying imagery. In one sketch, the slogan "We are happy" appears beside a starving child holding a baby.His most famous painting shows Kim Jong Il's face superimposed on the body of actress Marilyn Monroe as she tries to hold down a billowing white dress. Song's paintings also send up current leader, Kim Jong Un. In one he is seen dancing in shorts made from an American flag, in another he ice-skates across North Korea - symbolizing the country's frozen state.

“Even in Seoul, Song continues to live in fear of the North Korean regime; his art has not gone unnoticed north of the border. "They've said they will send agents to kill me," he said. "Every day, when I go home, I worry there may be somebody waiting." According to the Los Angeles Times: His work often includes images of butterflies, simple insects that he says have a better life than most North Koreans; their wings give them freedom.”

North Korea's Art Exports: Giant Statues and Jeweled Mosaics

North Korea doesn't have much the world wants to buy, but one very successful export has been its art. According to Reuters: “North Korea's manufacture and export of its cast bronze statues in the socialist-realist style is only a small source of hard currency for the isolated country, comprising about US$10 million a year, according to one estimate. But it has a good reputation in the field. "Of all the things North Korea does and makes, it certainly knows how to do socialist-realist art very well," said Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company that takes tourists to North Korea.” [Source: James Pearson, Reuters, December 1, 2016]

Some early works were donated to help North Korea to gain goodwill but “the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and a subsequent famine that devastated the North Korea's command economy transformed the statue-giving operation into a money-making Since the 1970s, North Korea has built monuments and statues in about 18 African countries, according to South Korean artist Onejoon Che, who has conducted research into the statues.He estimates North Korea has generated more than US$160 million since 2000 from buildings and monuments in places like Namibia, Congo, Botswana and Senegal. [Source: James Pearson, Reuters, December 1, 2016]

Lawrence Pollard of the BBC wrote: “It may surprise you to know that North Korea would love to carry out your artistic commissions. How about a mural, a tapestry, or a "jewel painting" coloured with powdered semi-precious stones? Or something a bit more imposing, like a giant bronze statue of that dictator or liberator close to your heart? The Mansudae Art Studio is keen to hear from you. “They've just produced a giant embroidery for the Benetton fashion family and fitted out a museum in Cambodia. [Source: Lawrence Pollard, BBC, February 16, 2016]

Pier Luigi Cecioni has taken some” Mansudae works “round major Italian galleries. "They know a lot about the classics," he says. "Abstract and conceptual art they find amusing. They're not scornful or anything like that, they just don't see it as necessary. They have an enviable position you know - unlike a Western artist they don't have to worry about selling their work, they have a salary. They are recognised and have privileges. The ones I know, they seem to live happily, they feel part of something."

“You get a glimpse of their world through the website run by Cecioni. It shows quite a variety of medium and subject matter, with a bias towards flowers and soldiers. These highly skilled craftsmen, largely anonymous, working for a higher good and not interested in profit inhabit a very different world from artists elsewhere - and not one many would envy. But if your taste - ironic or otherwise - leads you to want a statue in the classic bronze-giant-hailing-a-taxicab pose, then who you gonna call? Mansudae.

Eric Talmadge of Associated Press wrote: In December 2015, “a US$24 million museum with a huge indoor historical panorama built, designed and largely funded by Mansudae was opened near Cambodia’s ancient Angkor Wat temple complex. Unlike other projects by Mansudae abroad, it will collect proceeds from entry fees for the museum’s first 10 years of operations, or until it has recouped its investment. The museum hasn’t drawn many tourists. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, December 27, 2016]

African Love of Big North Korean Statues

According to Associated Press: Africa has traditionally been Mansudae’s prime export market — it’s sold to 17 African countries, ranging from Angola to Zimbabwe. Pyongyang began exporting statues to Africa in the late 1960s, when a wave of independence movements created a new market of ideologically friendly leaders in search of grand symbols to bolster national identity and claims of political legitimacy. North Korea, looking to expand its diplomatic ties vis a vis rival Seoul, initially provided the works for free. It only started selling them from about 2000. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, December 27, 2016]

According to Reuters: One of the first monuments North Korea donated was the 1984 Tiglachin, or "Struggle" monument to Ethiopian and Cuban soldiers in Addis Ababa. It features three Kalashnikov-wielding soldiers in front of an obelisk adorned by a single red star. It was donated at a time when the North Korean economy, buoyed by Soviet and Chinese aid, was faring better than it is today. Statues were also an important tool for Pyongyang when it was investing heavily in its overseas networks in order to win the backing of smaller states in a battle for diplomatic support at the United Nations.” In 2010" North Korean workers completed Africa's tallest statue — the 49 meter (160 feet) African Renaissance Monument, which soars over a suburb of Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The statue cost Senegal about US$27 million by some estimates, and features a muscular, topless man holding a woman with one hand and a baby aloft in the other. [Source: James Pearson, Reuters, December 1, 2016]

Lawrence Pollard of the BBC wrote: “It's in Africa that Mansudae Overseas Projects (MOP) has found the keenest appetite for its work. The export of this bold, direct, firmly authoritarian style began in the early 1980s as a diplomatic gift to socialist or non-aligned countries from their North Korean brothers. More recently it's become a valuable source of hard currency, with artists and craftsmen from MOP working in Angola, Benin, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia and Togo. Local media in Zimbabwe report there are two giant Robert Mugabes in storage waiting to commemorate his death. And most famously, in Senegal the giant African Renaissance Monument was cast on site by Mansudae craftsmen and dedicated in 2010. It's estimated that the studio has earned tens of millions of dollars in this way. [Source: Lawrence Pollard, BBC, February 16, 2016]

“North Korean art seems to appeal to African leaders for two reasons. First, because the price is right. Senegal paid for its 49-meter-high (161 foot) statue by giving some land to the North Koreans - who immediately sold it for cash. The second reason is the style. "The Russians and Chinese don't make that kind of stuff any more," says art critic William Feaver. "The appeal is in the statement of the obvious - and of course size is everything." He sees enthusiasm for the style as part of a nation-building process. "You could think of Mount Rushmore as the American version, performing a similar celebration of founding fathers for a relatively new nation keen to assert itself in the world."

“Just outside the Namibian capital Windhoek is a vast parade ground, grandstand and war memorial to that country's independence struggle - Heroes' Acre is another Mansudae Overseas Project. "It's a giant obelisk above an 11-meter-high (36 foot) bronze statue of the Unknown Soldier - bearing a strong resemblance to Namibia's first President, Sam Nujoma," says the BBC's Frauke Jensen. "No visitors, no tourist buses, just a solitary baboon sitting on the side running away as I approached the steps up to the monument."

“President Nujoma would of course have had a hand in the decision to honour the Unknown Soldier, so maybe it's a case of killing two birds with one bronze. Whoever he looks like, at least the Unknown Soldier looks African. The then Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade complained that the giant figures in Dakar initially looked too Asian, and had them redone. The recent (2011) statue of Samora Machel in Maputo, Mozambique, isn't thought to be a good portrait, and Laurent Kabila in Kinshasha, DRC (2001) seems to wear an outfit from the Kims' tailor. "These statues look like they're made to be toppled," says historian Adrian Tinniswood. "And they look weirdly North Korean. They're statements of liberation but they represent a failure of confidence - where are the African designers and African sculptors who'd be better representing African consciousness?"

Sanctions on Art Export Dry Up Source of Hard Currency

In December 2016, art exports from North Korea were placed on the listed of sanctioned items by the United Nations, denying the North Korean regime of a source of much needed foreign currency. Eric Talmadge of Associated Press wrote: “In one of the odder items on the list of things North Korea can’t export under United Nations’ sanctions, statues were explicitly listed for the first time when the Security Council approved a raft of punishments in response to Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, which it conducted in September. To those familiar with the North’s exports, the move to ban statue sales wasn’t entirely a surprise. It’s one of the few things other than coal and natural resources, exports of which were also heavily restricted under the new sanctions, that North Korea can still find a market for abroad. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, December 27, 2016]

“Moreover, sanctions advocates and proponents of isolating Pyongyang for its nuclear program believe Mansudae, and particularly its export arm, Mansudae Overseas Projects, is being used to quietly maintain, expand or obfuscate the nature of its relations with other countries.” But “business hasn’t exactly been booming. In July, Namibia terminated the services of Mansudae Overseas Projects after U.N. monitors claimed it was involved in several military construction projects. Namibia had been a regular Mansudae customer, including the project to build its State House, which was completed in 2008.

“The U.N. statue sanctions won’t likely hurt North Korea’s coffers much. The North’s total income from selling statues abroad has been estimated at about US$160 million, or only about US$10 million a year. That’s compared with the estimated impact of the new restrictions on coal exports, which the U.S. has said could cost Pyongyang as much as US$700 million. Even so, it’s a slap at one of North Korea’s most venerable cultural institutions.” the U.N. resolution plans to cap North Korea's coal exports at around US$400 million per year.

Problems with Collecting North Korean Art

According to AFP: For any serious collector, there are numerous potential pitfalls. "Provenance is always a big issue," said Carey Park, an art expert at South Korea's National University of Cultural Heritage. Star artists often produce multiple copies of their most popular works which are also copied by other artists, so that more people can see them. "That's one of the things that is so unique about the North Korean system," Park said, noting that it also cranks out a lot of works specifically tailored for foreign consumption. This makes finding high quality pieces, with a clear provenance and with genuine roots in the fabric of North Korean society, extremely difficult. [Source: AFP, January 29, 2015]

Koen De Cuester, an expert on North Korean art from Leiden University in the Netherlands, stressed that a hefty bankroll was no substitute for expertise and inside knowledge. "Just because a painting hails from North Korea, does not make it representative of North Korean art," De Cuester said in a telephone interview. "They produce a lot that caters explicitly to foreign tastes — or what they perceive foreign tastes to be — and the artistic merit of those works is questionable, no matter how well executed," he said.

De Cuester pointed specifically to one painting in Broersen's show depicting a bikini-clad woman and child paddling in water. "That is not an art work that would be shown in North Korea. It is exclusively painted for the foreign market," he said. In De Cuester's opinion there are only two or three top-quality private collections of North Korean art. "And they have been built from years or even decades of working on North Korean art, being exposed to it, knowing the artists and having familiarity on the ground," he said.

Trying to Corner the North Korean Art Market?

AFP reported: After years of flying to North Korea with "bags full of money" and returning with hundreds of works of art, investor Frans Broersen believes he has pre-emptively secured a lucrative slice of a market so specialised it doesn't really exist.Some critics describe Broersen's strategy as more akin to carpetbagging than collecting, and dispute the overall quality of the works he purchased during the course of seven trips to Pyongyang beginning in 2005. [Source: AFP, January 29, 2015]

“Broersen says he cajoled and bribed his way into top artists' studios, met with painters' widows who brought canvasses to his hotel room, and doled out hundreds of thousands of euros in cash.The result is a collection of around 2,500 pieces of contemporary North Korean art, including some by renowned painters like Son U-Yong and Jung Chang-Mo”. A selection of nearly 150 paintings forms the heart of the “Hidden Treasures” exhibition described above.

Broersen, by his own admission, had "never seen a North Korean art work" before heading to Pyongyang, and is quite candid about the motives for his buying spree. "We want a return on our investment," he said of his foundation, set up with two fellow Dutch investors. "We're not philanthropists." Broersen is following a strategy he honed by buying up Russian art around the time of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, when prices shot up as the new market opened.

"The whole collection is a huge, long-term investment, speculating that one day the Koreas will unite, the market will open and the value of the works will rise very sharply," he told AFP in an interview in Seoul. "At the moment, there is practically no market for North Korean art, because the works are not really being traded," he added.

Broersen started buying on just his second trip, when he got through 300,000 euros, relying on his "intuitive" nose for quality. "I literally arrived there with bags full of money and spent it in what, for them, was an incredible way," he said, recalling a visit to Son U-Yong's studio. After agreeing the price for a certain size of painting, Broersen told them he wanted "this one, that one, that, that, that .. and so on." "I bought up to 25 or 30 paintings. Their mouths fell open of course. I spent God knows how much money," he said.

“One consequence of Broersen's largesse was that the next time he went, the prices he was quoted had shot up — sometimes ten-fold. By his third trip, Broersen said artists and the relatives of painters who had recently died started seeking him out in his hotel room with works for sale. "There were widows and pensioners and young artists. They brought rolled-up canvasses and we communicated (prices) with hands and fingers," he said.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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