View of Pyongyang in 2018. Courtesy Nicholas Bonner.


Also available in:  Chinese

All art in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is produced by the state, and is primarily controlled by the three main art studios in Pyongyang: Mansudae, Paekho and Central Art Studio. Mansudae is the largest art “collective.” Yet its sales are currently experiencing a low due to sanctions and the decline in tourist numbers. On August 5, 2016, after North Korea’s missile tests, the UN Security Council subjected Mansudae to a global asset freeze, effectively banning the export of artworks and construction projects like the recently completed visitor center in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and the African Renaissance Monument in Dakar, Senegal. 

Showrooms at both Mansudae and Paekho consist of all manner of fine arts: oils, ink, linocuts, embroidery, sculpture, celadon pottery and “powder” painting (using crushed stone to produce jeweled works that fit nicely in an oligarch’s home). The reduction in sales has meant a dramatic cut in work and revenue, but art is still being produced. For Mansudae, with a labor force of around 4,000—of which approximately 800 to 900 are artists—it is not possible to lay off the state-employed workers, as the disruption would be enormous. 

The state, therefore, has had to find work for the artists. With the new construction boom in Pyongyang and the eastern coastal city of Wonsan, there is at least a domestic opportunity for their skills. However, bringing in the necessary funds simply to run such monoliths, let alone pay funds to the state, is likely causing great stress. Studios must therefore be looking at other ways of generating cash, to at least keep them ticking over, and the only realistic place to makes such sales is in China. 

Previously, there were regular invitations for exhibitions. However, with the worsening of Sino-DPRK relations, these opportunities have dried up. Today, most of the art is carried by hand into China by Korean traders looking for private sales. The majority of this art caters to Chinese tastes—African wildlife, in particular tigers and elephants, and bucolic pastiche landscapes in oil and ink. 

A burgeoning middle class in Pyongyang, visible since the 2002 economic reforms, has brought a fresh breeze through the bamboo curtain. Despite a lack of political change, for many, living standards in the capital have risen, and this has provided funds for a little window dressing. In the flats of the approximately 2.5 million residents in Pyongyang, the imagery—apart from the photographs of leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il—will not be propaganda, but is far more likely to be that of puppies playing with balls, or similar such kitsch. 

Some foreign imagery makes its way in—by legal means, such as the broadcasting of international news and sports every Sunday, as well as by other less legal means—and has influenced those of the latest generation to be much more fashion-conscious than their parents. The country’s capital is increasingly seeing new clothing and fashions, several coffee shops, and beauty centers and gyms with trendy interiors, as well as a range of products from China in particular— all of this will have had an impact on artists’ aesthetics and their larger sense of the outside world. 

Yet there are few opportunities for the DPRK’s artists to travel outside the country and interact with their foreign counterparts. There remains absolutely no avant-garde movement, no dissent from approved genres, nothing abstract, no nudes. 

Any optimism that Pyongyang was opening up has been largely crushed by recent sanctions. People are now generally much more concerned with food stocks and saving money than spending on art and other luxuries. Pyongyang’s citizens are aware that the next few months are a fragile period, and are waiting to see if an accord can be reached with South Korea and, perhaps more importantly (and North Korea’s real goal), with the United States. 

Because there is little understanding of North Korean art history, there have been occasional rushes of speculators buying works that are copies, or worse, just badly painted. With virtually no international recognition of individual contemporary artists in the DPRK, artworks are stripped from the artist—they become purely decorative objects, bought on visual appeal. As such, much of the art is seen either as chocolate-box kitsch, or as frames for soulless, repetitive themes. 

But there are artists in the DPRK who create absolute beauty, and particularly excel in capturing the valor of labor. Li Ryong Guk, for instance, is known for his figurative art, and the talented Chae Chang Ho would rate alongside any contemporary artist in the world. They have a vision and a way of expression that adds personality and depth to what would otherwise be repetitive social-realist artwork mandatorily depicting the tropes of past sufferings and a brilliantly led revolutionary future. Artists in North Korea work to produce the best art they can—not just for their masters, but also purely for themselves, as true artists innately do.

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