Generally when one hears mention of North Korea, the rogue isolationist country with a clear distaste for the international community, images of violence, nuclear war and oppression tend to spring to mind. It can be hard to see past the regular controversial and combative missile tests undertaken by the state in resistance to international sanctions, and the threatening rhetoric of their young and volatile leader Kim Jong Un. The country tends to appear to the rest of the world as a rabid, aggressive and fearsome military machine. Due to their isolationist ways, we know very little about the functionality of their political system, their distribution of wealth, their treatment of their citizens, or their cultural offerings. What information we are able to gleam about the regime tends to come from those who have defected and managed to get out of the country. The reports these defectors offer are often dire.
The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, which is neither democratic nor a republic, could be viewed from the outside as a communist dictatorship. In 1948 Kim Il Sung became the leader of North Korea, installing himself as an infallible head of state to be revered as a god, and established a firm rule over his people. After his death, he was replaced by his son Kim Jong-Il, who passed away in 2011 to be succeeded by his son and current leader Kim Jong-Un. Since 1948, the country has completely closed itself off from the rest of the world while bolstering its militaristic ambitions, creating a culture of fear and intrigue around itself. There are a lot of unanswered questions about the functionality of life in North Korea. What we do know is that the government provides life long jobs to its citizens, with the best of these positions being handed to those with the best connections. A 2008 estimate suggested that 37% of the country’s employees work in agriculture, while 63% work in mining, manufacturing, transportation, government and other areas.
Luckily for some, North Korea has educational institutions which offer areas of study like engineering, medicine, teaching, music, drama and fine arts. Though it may be hard to imagine, there is a burgeoning artistic community within North Korea, albeit one that works within state sanctioned parameters. The biggest name in this scene is the Mansudae Art Studio which is located just north of the country’s capital Pyongyang. The institution employs 700 artists and 4,000 staff to create paintings, posters and sculptures. The facility is government run and primarily exists to create propaganda based artworks. Posters which bolster the attitudes of the regime are plastered around North Korea, and the official website of the Mansudae Art Studio seems to see this as a good thing, noting how North Korea “is the only country which still utilises posters to convey social and political messages to its people. A form of art in itself, once popular in China and the Soviet Union. Besides their artistic value, these posters, with their writings and their messages, offer a view on the unique North Korean society.”
Most of the artwork produced within Mansudae is in a socialist realism style, depicting every day people joyously completing menial tasks and labour, such as the artwork below entitled Fisherwomen At Work. The idea that ‘work is happiness’ tends to be communicated through the artworks. In November 2014, the outside world got one of its clearest looks yet at North Korean artwork, in the form of an exhibition at London’s North Korean embassy. The works on display ranged from images of cultural events to landscapes. In July of 2016, the U.S.A had a similar offering, with an exhibition hosted in Washington. The artwork offers a rare glimpse inside a country which forcefully removes itself from international dialogue. But it is hard to tell what is true artistic expression and what has been dictated by the state. This reflects the nature of North Korea in many ways – when you see opinion polls or footage from inside the country, citizens heap praise on their leadership and their living conditions, even though evidence points to human rights violations and an iron-fisted rule. Many believe that North Koreans are pulled into line through fear, and encouraged only to offer the best depictions of their country to the outside world. This is likely the purpose of art being produced within the country’s borders – to show what the North Korean government wants people to see, not what their country actually is.
That’s not to say that there are no indications of true North Korean life within the art. As with all art, it is possible to read between the lines and draw more substance from the imagery. Take the two below works, both which were included in the London exhibition. The first is entitled Pine Tree and a Hawk, painted by Chun Young – perhaps the darker, muddier leaf textures creeping out from behind the brighter greens demonstrate the darker underbelly of a rosy presentation of the country. Or, perhaps it is simply shadowing. The second, a piece entitled Roses by Rhee Hwa Sik takes a beautiful subject matter and distorts it with a violent energy – possibly a representation of the treatment of people within North Korea, or perhaps just an abstract impressionistic flair on display.
The London exhibition was organised by Paul and Teresa Song, art collectors and self proclaimed “promotors of peace on the Korean peninsula.” Teresa told Spectator that ‘There is little room for interpretation in North Korean art. As per Kim Jong Il’s order, art is for the people – everyone should be able to enjoy it equally, whether you are an artist or a worker. As a result, all paintings are very realistic in what they depict, so that there is no confusion.” As the artists are employed by the state like any other citizen, what they can create is strictly controlled. Underground art is prohibited in North Korea, as is political art (that is, political art which does not support the current regime.)
It could be gathered that North Korean art exists to push a social and political message – support for the leadership of the country, an appreciation of North Korea’s natural beauty, and a passion for working. In a larger sense, artists create work which inspires viewers to have patriotic feelings about their country. Not only is art controlled by the government in North Korea, so is music, political discussion and the media. All of these elements combine to create an oppressive regime which may not seem oppressive to the people. Due to their lack of contact with the outside world, many North Koreans may not be aware of a low quality of life devoid of basic freedoms in a western sense. Their art and media praises their leader as a god who can do no wrong, and they are fed rosy, unblemished images of the country in which they reside. Through a combination of fear, lies and patriotism, the illusion that North Korea is perfect is driven home within the country’s citizens.
The exhibition launched in Washington was spearheaded by B.G Muhn, an art professor at Georgetown university, pictured at the unveiling of the exhibit below. After years of visiting Pyongyang and persuading state officials to lend him works, his vision of a U.S North Korean art exhibition came to fruition. He has said “It’s not fair to call North Korean art just propaganda.” While he acknowledges the atrocities and human rights violations of the government, Muhn seems to wish to divide the artistic and political spectrums of North Korean society, even though they appear to be one in the same. “You can see the technical mastery, the use of colour, painting without outlines. Yes, it does serve the government’s ends, but it is museum quality,”
Perhaps it will take many more years before the rest of the world can truly understand what life inside North Korea is like. But even through these state sanctioned art works, we are afforded a rare glimpse inside one of the most elusive countries in modern history.