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North Korean art trade on the rise in China

North Korea wouldn’t necessarily be the first to spring to mind when thinking about the biggest art-producing nations in the world. However, our expert art appraisers tell us that there are now thousands of artists who have located their studios a stone’s throw from the Chinese border and are successfully exporting their pieces into China and around the world. There has been a huge upsurge in the popularity of these works, so much so that more than 4,000 North Koreans are now employed by the state in the main headquarters of the state-controlled Mansudae gallery. These studios are a state-run organisation which is dedicated to the full-time production of public artworks in Korea, including all state-produced propaganda posters, murals and statues.

In addition to being responsible for all of the internal propaganda required by the North Korean regime, Mansudae also has an international division, exporting pieces of art to galleries and private collectors all around the world, generating millions of dollars of business. All of the profits generated by the studios are held by the state and reinvested into the North Korean regime. This means that all purchases of North Korean pieces of art are directly funding the power of the totalitarian state.

Global appeal

Artworks created by the Mansudae studios have found global appeal, not only because they offer a small window into this seemingly impenetrable country, but also because of the exceptional quality of the pieces themselves. Many of the pieces are examples of a technique called ‘chosonhwa’, the practice of using rice paper and ink rather than the more traditional oil and canvas. On many of the pieces, the colour white is produced by leaving the white rice paper unpainted, a technique which is intriguing and unique to this North Korean art movement. The paintings are often delicate and intricate with huge amounts of detail, even on those which measure as much as 10 metres across. Some of the more modern pieces show clear signs of Western influence, with the techniques becoming more abstract in nature. Regardless of the technique, however, the subjects remain the same. All of the artworks coming out of North Korea are pieces of political propaganda.

UN Clampdown

The popularity of these North Korean masterpieces has started to wane in most countries, mainly thanks to a United Nations clamp down. The UN has been worried for some time that North Korea is using its art trade as a way of covering up and laundering international military transactions. The UN Security Council has intervened in the dealing of North Korean artworks, blacklisting the Mansudae Gallery and imposing a full global asset freeze on all art created by the studios as well as a ban on transportation. The UN declared that any projects which had been undertaken in conjunction with the Mansudae Art Studios must be shut down by the end of 2016.

However, it seems that this has had little or no limiting effect on the size of the market for these pieces within China. With thousands of artists producing artworks for a hungry and expanding consumer market, it is now estimated that North Korea has earned tens of millions of dollars from the sales of its paintings and statues, with a large proportion of this coming from Chinese customers. The Chinese galleries which have been working in partnership with the North Korean art studios are refusing to engage in conversations surrounding the UN’s asset freeze and travel ban. It seems that they are eager to maintain the rate of consumption of the North Korean pieces making their way across the border and do not seem to be taking heed of the UN’s sanctions.

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