But its artist collective has a website.
On today’s date in 1948, Kim Il-Sung became the leader of a brand-new Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In the decades that followed, the Kim family would establish an iron-fisted rule while closing itself off almost entirely to the Western world.
We don’t know a lot about life in North Korea. The government doles out lifelong jobs to the populace, with the best ones handed to the wealthiest and most well-connected, says defector Mina Yoon. According to a 2008 estimate, about 37 percent of the country’s employed works in agriculture, while 63 percent work in manufacturing, mining, transportation, government and other fields. While most girls go on to work after middle school, boys will usually serve in the military — although Yoon writes that taller girls are also required to serve. Military officials often get to decide who will be assigned manual labor and who will receive higher education.
For a lucky few, though, the country has educational institutions devoted to subjects including engineering, medicine, teaching, and even music, foreign languages, drama and the fine arts.
The heart of North Korea’s fine art scene — however strange that sounds — is the Mansudae Art Studio, occupying a campus just north of Pyongyang. With 700 artists and a staff of 4,000 working to produce paintings, posters and sculptures, Mansudae might be the world’s largest center for art production. It’s government-run, of course, and used primarily to churn out work extolling the state’s leaders and military, but the studio also accepts commissions from international clients. And recently, the Western world has been able to catch glimpses of these artists’ works.
For starters, Mansudae has a fully functioning website. You can order North Korean art from your couch — although U.S. residents will have a difficult-to-impossible time getting that delivered to their doors. The site’s webmaster, Italy-based Pier Luigi Cecioni, told Vice News that propaganda posters are actually easiest to sell, being cheap and “rather spectacular.”
Most of the work is created in the vein of socialist realism, featuring scenes of ordinary people fulfilling themselves through work. Pastoral views are common, as well as traditional Korean styles.
A show in South Korea made headlines in January 2015 for featuring works by North Korean artists. Investor Frans Broersen lent part of his Kaesong Collection to the exhibition in Goyang — about ten miles south of the country’s demilitarized zone — featuring 150 works by 70 North Korean artists created between 1960 and 2008. The works, none political, were grouped by theme: landscape, portrait, animals and the seasons.
Broersen had an inkling there might be some art “of value” somewhere in the secretive nation. “What can you still find on this planet that hasn’t been explored?” he asked The Wall Street Journal.
In November 2014, a select few Mansudae artists visited London for an art show at the city’s North Korean embassy. A few arrived early to paint street scenes.
“We decide what we want to paint. We have total artistic freedom,” 42-year-old Ho Jae Sungtold the BBC of his usual repertoire back home. To The Telegraph, Ho said that London reminded him of Pyongyang, “full of beautiful things and beautiful people.”
Rare photographs of a North Korean cultural festival devoted to the nation’s military and government also went on display at a London gallery in 2013. Jeremy Hunter captured the event called Arirang, named after a traditional folk song representing “the soul of Korea,” on a special trip to Pyongyang. For Arirang, hundreds of buses carrying thousands of people arrive to fill the city’s May Day Stadium for a two-hour, 100,000-person synchronized dance show prepared over six months.
Even in the creative professions, however, life in North Korea is far from easy. Song Byeok, a former North Korean artist who defected to South Korea in 2002, told The Hollywood Reporter that his mother and sister starved to death in the country’s 1990s famine and, later, his father drowned trying to pick up illegal supplies from China across a river. Stuck in a prison camp, Song suffered beatings and a finger amputation.
Since his escape, he’s been creating dissident art — including state propaganda he was forced to memorize. “Will you live as free people or slaves? Let’s lift up the red banner of revolution until the end,” one such piece reads.
“The irony is, they are slaves,” Song told The Hollywood Reporter.
For all the impressive skill of its talented pool of artists, artistic freedom in North Korea might only be an optimistic myth. The arts education citizens receive is so highly controlled that when Broersen told a North Korean artist his brushstrokes reminded him of Vincent van Gogh, the man said he didn’t know who that was. The only European painter he knew, Broersen told the WSJ, was Pablo Picasso.
Maybe one day North Korean artists will be able to create outside of the party’s guiding ideology and break out of its censoring grasp. Until then, we’ll have to take what small snapshots behind their iron curtain we can.