North Korea is selling art to overseas buyers

Choi Sang Kyun, head of Gallery Pyongyang, poses for photographs with a North Korean propaganda poster that he collected. Source: Reuters

IN the Chinese border town of Dandong, North Korean artists from Mansudae Art Studio, North Korea’s largest producer of art, are seen painting. They paint scenes like idyllic landscapes and groups of running horses.

Reuters reported that there are many outlets like this along the China-North Korea border, and they house works from thousands of North Korean artists while catering to the Chinese market.

Park Young-jeong, a research fellow at the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, a Seoul-based organization, said, “Chinese have begun collecting art, and North Korean art is much easier and cheaper for them to obtain.”

As many countries respond to North Korea’s missile launches and weapons testing with sanctions, the state is using studios like Mansudae to help Pyongyang raise cash abroad; art was seen more as a channel for mutual understanding.

The head of the Mansudae Art Museum, Ji Zhengtai, told Reuters: “Now more than ever we need avenues like art to create understanding between North Korea and the rest of the world.”

While it is not possible to estimate the total value of Mansudae’s dealings, the Security Council diplomat said the business had earned tens of millions of dollars globally.

Many collectors, art historians, academics and people who have sold North Korean art globally have said that 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.

Even so, they say North Korean diplomats in Europe have been enthusiastic to promote art exhibitions with the simple aim of bringing in hard currency.

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In China, demand 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 specialty of noodles in cold soup, watch North Korean women sing and dance, and buy North Korean paintings.

Besides Mansudae, just about every ministry and almost all the local authorities in North Korea have an art studio, said Koen De Ceuster, a lecturer in Korean studies at Leiden University who has been studying North Korean art for over a decade. “There’s studios all across the country,” he said.

Other prominent studio names include Paekho and the Central Arts Studio. Paekho, which means “white tiger” in Korean, is the biggest seller of popular paintings in Dandong, traders there said.

Paekho’s varied output includes propaganda posters calling for a nuclear-free world. The Dandong center that Reuters visited has hosted around 500 North Korean artists since 2014, manager Gai said. They stay for between six months and three years.

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

Not all the proceeds go to Pyongyang. Mark-ups can reach four or five times the dealer’s purchase price, according to one Dandong dealer.

Additional reporting by Reuters.