A rare insight into North Korea through the medium of art
What truth lies beneath the brushstrokes of a North Korean painter? Join me as I visit the North Korean embassy to review London’s first Pyongyang-backed art exhibition.
It is the most repressive state on the planet. What North Korea projects to the world usually masks the reality of torture, imprisonment, and death. For decades, artform has been exploited as a vehicle for propaganda in the hermit nation. Where only absolute devotion to the supreme leader, and praise of all things North Korean, is permitted.
According to human rights groups, that devotion is the result of conditioning from birth — and fear of execution or imprisonment in inhumane labour camps. Escape is fraught with danger, as defectors such as Yeonmi Park will testify. The vast majority of defectors that are caught in China are usually deported back to the North Korean authorities, as Beijing’s stance on escapees are that of ‘illegal immigrants’ as opposed to political refugees. The deportee’s whereabouts thereafter remain ‘unknown’, and therefore most likely face death. The horror persists for female defectors as most that are caught tend to be trafficked as sex slaves, and ultimately raped. Girls as little as 13-years old are enslaved by traffickers in China, and it is believed that at least 200,000 North Korean defectors are hiding in the country.
With this in mind, the very thought of attending an art exhibition backed by the very regime that perpetuated this for 60 years, became an incredibly powerful cognitive dissonance. I didn't want to go for the reasons aforementioned, but at the same time, I can appreciate that the road to peace lies within human understanding. We mustn’t alienate the people and isolate them even further from the global society.
I felt that we all could play a part in encouraging the North to celebrate the pathway to ‘normality’ through this very raw form of human communication that is art. This was enough to somewhat resolve my internal conflict and finally head off.
I boarded a train from the University and stood for the entire journey, with the train and my mind rattling alike. When the station arrived, I reluctantly got off, proceeded up the stairs and out the station, roughly in the direction of the Embassy.
Despite having walked this path for 16 years, the pure significance of the event brought a sense of novelty. Every step felt different. Almost every step that is, until the fluttering flag of the DPR of Korea came into view. The piercing hues of red, blue, and white is a noticeable sight to most residents in the vicinity. Not knowing what to expect, I took a deep breath and opened the door.
Entering the Embassy, it is immediately clear that this is no ordinary government building. Firstly, despite the small property being inundated with DPRK personnel, the only thing that greets you is a large painting of an albino Siberian Tiger beaming into your eyes. Secondly, and much to my delight, upon arrival I was not met with a pat down, nor did I have to go through a metal detector. For a country that is famously regarded as being a tightly controlled state, the embassy appeared fairly modest in its security.
Though oddly enough, not one of the numerous officials at the Embassy was a woman. In fact, there wasn't a single North Korean woman in sight. None of the female artists featured in the exhibition were present either. I found this to be incredibly bizarre, but it made sense. With the almost-fatherly portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il perched eerily on the wall, glaring back at you in a cream-coloured room made of predominantly male artists and officials, it becomes ever more apparent that this is a society of extreme patriarchal hierarchy. And in the company of such hosts, it doesn't take long for one to arrive to this conclusion. As defector Jihyun Park quotes:
“Women’s rights are a critical indicator of where a country’s human rights stand.”
Yet the majority of people that were featured in the artwork were women. Paradoxical as it was, the entire situation felt like an episode of Mad Men. It brought me back into a time where fewer women were granted work due to the dated notion of women as delicate, beautiful, objects that exist exclusively for the pleasure of men to enjoy. Be it in artform, or in wider society.
Admittedly, with my fairly limited understanding of the North, I could only conclude that as the nation began isolating itself from the Western world, these remnants of the 1950s (when outside influence started to become constrained) endured within their cultural consciousness. One can see it in their soviet-style architecture, clothing, music, automobiles, and technology. But most of all, North Korean TV tends to only broadcast hagiographies of the two leaders and pictures celebrating the country’s army, model farms, and model villages. With the majority of the populace being banned from using the internet, this is indeed a nation that appears to be frozen in time.
Though at the Embassy, one thing that stood out amongst the murky grey uniforms was a bright red badge depicting the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, that all the officials donned. But apart from this, there was not a single noticeable aspect of them that was stereotypically ‘North Korean’. I had also learnt that various North Korean expatriates who have the privilege to live to London (either through diplomatic activities or to study, as with the children of the DPRK elite) are surprisingly ‘normal’.
Normality started to become a recurring theme from then on. I was told the painters were given creative freedom during their brief stay in London to paint the landscape and people of the city. Mr Hong and three others travelled from the North Korean capital on an unprecedented artistic mission where they wandered the city, painting subjects of interest in their path.
‘Oh that one?’, Kim Hun asks as he points to Hong Song’s work depicting two blonde girls giggling beside the river Thames, ‘It’s very normal. Very natural.’
The composition did not lie. This entire collection was indeed the essence of London. With this piece, Hong Song has captured a very natural moment outside North Korea. As a result, this forced me to question: If the artists could capture our city in such an honest manner (in a short amount of time), could the images of the North also bear the same pattern of truths?
There is something very powerful, something very human about art. For art tends to evoke a universal response that resonates in all of us. Weather that is a positive or negative response is dependent on interpretation. Nevertheless, the appreciation (or lack of) for the qualities that make art ‘art’ is entirely human. And so for once, the people of North Korea appeared very much like one of us. Very much, dare I say, ‘human’.
To me, the extraordinary painting of the 888,246 ceramic poppies painted by a North Korean, is deeply significant. Mostly because, the Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red portrays the context of grievance in Western military history. Up until then, I had assumed that every North Korean was conditioned to express the utmost hatred for the West. This North Korean seemed very somber at the thought of the loss of British & Allied lives.
‘This event marks 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War’, I explain.
‘Oh! I understand now’, assures Kim Hun, ‘it was because of this occasion.’
I then go on to further add, ‘Also, we buy these poppies and wear them every November to remember the lives lost. The money raised is donated to charity for the veterans.’
‘Ah, that’s a good thing’, replies Kim Hun.
That surprised me the most. For this wasn't a man who’s been living in the United Kingdom for a set number of years, and as a result, has been climatised to Western ideals. This was the a man who only just arrived a week ago. This was a man whose artistry has the approval from the powers in Pyongyang. And yet, is clearly capable to form opinions of his own accord. Everything I understood of the people of North Korea came crashing down in one conversation.
“You get the sense, in London, that around the corner of every street there is such life — such history, combined with such modernity” said Kim Hun.
“It’s like Pyongyang,” added Ho Jae-sung. “Full of beautiful things and beautiful people.”
The theme soon returned back to Korean culture. There were various mediums used. I particularly enjoyed the embroidery of the temple & shrine among a backdrop of snow in the Korean winter.
The theme from this section of the room threw back to the time when the Koreas were united as one nation. The land of Choseon is what the North has always represented for me, and to see it in artform was a fascinating experience.
“We had to go to the highest possible levels in Pyongyang to get approval for this,” said David Heather, a Surrey-based Soviet art historian who has visited North Korea several times and has masterminded the exhibition. “I believe culture has an enormously important role to play in developing relationships between people. And, for want of a better word, it shows that North Korean people are ‘normal’.
The artists were from the Mansudae studio, which was founded in 1959 and currently has 700 artists. Only the most talented graduates from North Korean universities are entitled to join, and the studio has been specially chosen by Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader, to provide portraits of him and his family.
I began to ponder on the destiny of the artworks on display, so I pressed Kim Hun with another question, “What will become of the artwork in this exhibition? Will they be sold or auctioned off to buyers?”
‘Yes’, he said, ‘All of the art featured here will be sold in Pyongyang’.
Knowing that the North is a communist state, this wasn't exactly the answer that I was expecting. Despite my opinion on the DPRK remaining the same, my whole world view of the people of North Korea had shattered apart. This was a very human experience for me, and a humbling one at that.
‘kamsahamnida’, I said as I closed the door, leaving it slightly ajar for the next visitor.
I left the embassy and walked home with a heavy heart. Two regions with such deep history had been fragmented. With the beautiful North held to hostage by a villainous regime led by the Kim family, and the equally charming South paralysed in its inability to act.
As a result, people in between have suffered for half a century. To me, this is the tragedy of the Koreas. And it is also something that I didn't fully appreciate until I saw the intricate paintings by the people themselves.
Could true art exist in a totalitarian regime? For me, the answer was irrelevant. The experience of viewing art that desperately cries ‘I’m normal’, whilst hiding the scars of its abuser, was both haunting and humbling in equal measures. This was a country that deserves normality, for its people have suffered enough. And through our assistance and understanding, the Western world can play a significant role in achieving this.
I had stared down the depths of the abyss. But in the darkness, a distant glimmer caught my eye. What I saw in the artwork was indeed the humanisation of North Koreans. If DPRK art could elicit a response that draws upon mutual understanding and commonality, regardless of the commissioner’s ulterior motives, then surely this could serve as the seeds for peace between the Koreas.
I hope someday we find reconciliation, so that the nightmare can finally end.