North Korean art market under scrutiny amid international tensions
International experts are looking at North Korea’s art galleries as possible source of regime funding, and examining restricting access to buyers abroad.
In recent years as countries have responded to North Korea’s weapons tests with sanctions, Mansudae Art Studio, North Korea’s largest producer of art, and other 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 the North Korean state to cash in on military deals. As well as monumental statues, they found it built military installations such as a munitions factory and bases in Namibia.
A diplomat at the North Korean mission to the UN in Geneva said Mansudae had nothing to do with funding weapons manufacturing. No one from Mansudae could be reached.
Head of Gallery Pyongyang showcases an example of North Korean propaganda art reading “Nobody invade our blue sky.” August 24, 2017. (Reuters)
The UN Security Council banned Mansudae’s statue business in 2016. On August 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.
“With this listing, anything Mansudae produces – including paintings, other artwork, monuments, buildings, and other construction – cannot be bought and should be frozen per the asset freeze,” said a UN Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A panel of independent experts is charged with monitoring UN sanctions on North Korea. It reports violations and recommendations to the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions committee. Its reports are confidential, but the committee traditionally publishes annual reports.
Hugh Griffiths, who heads the panel, declined to comment, saying “the matter is subject to an ongoing investigation.”
In a further resolution on September 11, the Security Council decided that all joint ventures with North Korean entities or individuals must be shut down within 120 days, or by mid-January.
While the Security Council’s August 5 sanctions targeted only Mansudae, its September resolution on joint ventures also included restrictions on North Korean labour: This combination could hurt everyone in the art business, Dandong traders say.
The head of the Mansudae Art Museum Ji Zhengtai talks about paintings by a North Korean artist in the studio of the gallery in Beijing. September 20, 2017. (Reuters)
But there are ways around the measures, they add. For instance, paintings from Mansudae could be sold under the name of an art studio that hasn’t been sanctioned. Artists come to China under cultural exchange visas, not as workers. And two businessmen said paintings have long been accepted instead of cash in the barter deals that fuel the region’s economy.
Exactly what the measures mean for existing Mansudae art has yet to become clear. In Beijing’s art district, a gallery called the Mansudae Art Gallery says it is the studio’s official overseas gallery. Its head insists the sanctions do not apply to it and says they have had no impact on his business.
“Now more than ever we need avenues like art to create understanding between North Korea and the rest of the world,” said Ji Zhengtai.
It is not possible to estimate the total value of Mansudae’s dealings, but the Security Council diplomat said the business had earned tens of millions of dollars globally.
People looking at paintings created by North Korean artists in China-North Korea Cultural Centre in Dandong, China. September 9, 2017. (Reuters)
Demand for North Korean art
Speaking to at least 30 experts – collectors, art historians, academics and people who have sold North Korean art globally, Reuters reported that 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.
Even so, they say North Korean diplomats in Europe have been enthusiastic about promoting art exhibitions with the simple aim of bringing in hard currency.
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 speciality 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.
Many Dandong galleries house North Korean painters. Staff there said they have sold North Korean paintings for as much as $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.