North Korean art market heats up

A gallery of paintings by North Korean artists at the China-North Korea Cultural Centre in Dandong, Liaoning province, China. Many galleries in the Chinese border city house North Korean painters, and their works are said to have sold for as much as
A gallery of paintings by North Korean artists at the China-North Korea Cultural Centre in Dandong, Liaoning province, China. Many galleries in the Chinese border city house North Korean painters, and their works are said to have sold for as much as US$100,000 (S$136,000) to buyers around the world.PHOTO: REUTERS

As sanctions bite, studios have helped state raise cash abroad

DANDONG (China) • Seated beneath tall windows and dressed simply in singlets and trousers, North Korean painters are hard at work.

The artists staple canvases to frames or copy idyllic landscapes from laptop computers. One wears headphones as he paints a group of running horses onto his canvas.

The nine men have come to the Chinese border town of Dandong from Mansudae Art Studio, North Korea's largest producer of art.

There are many outlets like this along the border. They house some of the thousands of North Korean artists who cater to burgeoning demand for their work.

"The Chinese have begun collecting art, and North Korean art is much easier and cheaper for them to obtain," says research fellow Park Young Jeong at the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, a Seoul-based organisation.

In recent years, as countries have responded to North Korea's weapons tests with sanctions, Mansudae and other art studios have increasingly played a more controversial role - helping Pyongyang raise cash abroad. North Korea has long been punished for alleged underhand dealings in minerals, finance and arms. Art was seen more as a channel for mutual understanding.

That is changing.

Mansudae is run by the North Korean state. Its output ranges from statues of global leaders to propaganda posters, embroidery and more. It has built monuments and statues in at least 15 African countries, according to independent United Nations sanctions experts.

In a report in February, they said that a part of Mansudae called Mansudae Overseas Projects was a front for Pyongyang to cash in on military deals. As well as monumental statues, they found that it built military installations like a munitions factory and bases in Namibia.

The North Korean UN mission did not respond to a request for comment and no one from Mansudae could be reached.

In China, demand for North Korean art has really taken off. Dandong is a popular attraction for tourists who come to peep at North Koreans over the Yalu river border. Busloads of tourists show up every morning. Visitors sample a North Korean speciality of noodles in cold soup, watch North Korean women sing and dance, and buy North Korean paintings.

Many Dandong galleries house North Korean painters. The employees said they have sold North Korean paintings for as much as US$100,000 (S$136,000) to buyers around the world. Art experts agree the pieces can very occasionally fetch six-figure sums.

The UN Security Council banned Mansudae's statue business last year. On Aug 5, after Pyongyang conducted more weapons tests, the security council blacklisted Mansudae Art Studio, subjecting it to a global asset freeze and travel ban. Diplomats say this will prevent Mansudae from conducting business.

In a further resolution, on Sept 11, the council decided that all joint ventures with North Korean entities or individuals must be shut down within 120 days, or by mid-January. Exactly what the measures mean for existing Mansudae art has yet to become clear.

It is not possible to estimate the total value of Mansudae's dealings, but a security council diplomat said the business had earned tens of millions of dollars globally.

Reuters spoke to at least 30 experts - collectors, art historians, academics and people who have sold North Korean art globally. Many said the market for paintings is niche and amounts to little in terms of revenue compared with the billion-plus dollars North Korea has raised every year selling coal and other minerals abroad.

Mr Pier Luigi Cecioni, who sells Mansudae works online and at fairs, said he had no plans to shut down his operation.

"I consider it very important to let people know that... North Koreans do not make only bombs but also art, and are common people," he said last month.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2017, with the headline 'North Korean art market heats up'. Print Edition | Subscribe