Mon, Oct 09, 2017 - Page 8 News List

White tiger, dark horse

The North Korean art market heats up

By Sue-Lin Wong, Giselda Vagnoni and Fanny Potkin  /  Reuters, Dandong, China

Choi Sang-kyun, head of Gallery Pyongyang, poses in Seoul for photographs with a North Korean propaganda poster. It reads: “For the new world without nuclear weapons!”

Photo: Reuters

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 brushes 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.

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

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 UN 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.

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

The UN Security Council banned Mansudae’s statue business in 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.

“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.

In a further resolution on Sept. 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.

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.

‘WE DON’T DO POLITICS’, a Web site in Italy which calls itself Mansudae’s “official Web site abroad,” says the studio is “probably the largest art production center in the world.”

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