What Do North Korea’s Artists Make of London?

North Korean artist Song Jae Ho at the art exhibition at London's North Korean Embassy. Photo: Justin Tallis, courtesy AFP Photo.

As the people of London got a rare peek inside the North Korean embassy this week (see “Who are Kim Jong-un’s Top Artists?“), four North Korean artists whose work was on display got a tour of the British city, and were actually given the chance to speak to journalists about the trip.

Patriotically outfitted with North Korean flag pins depicting former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, grandfather and father of current leader Kim Jong-un (see “Wax Statues of Kim Jong Il and His Father Are Worshipped in North Korea” and “Kim Jong-un Poses for Propaganda Photo in Front of Fornicating Toys“), the four artists, Jon Pyong Jin, Kim Hun, Ho Jae Song, and Hong Song II, fielded questions from journalists during a press preview for the exhibition.

“I thought before coming here that London would be very different from Pyongyang, but I’ve been able to glimpse the way of life here and I find that it is actually very similar,” Ho told the AFP. He noted that London was not as clean was Pyongyang.

When pushed to discuss the dictatorial government’s reputation for violence, the artists were diplomatic. “I think that’s a misunderstanding, and a miscommunication. If you come and see for yourself of course it will be different,” Ho told the Daily Beast. “I wish more people from London would be able to come to Pyongyang.” The interpreter didn’t even let Ho answer a question about artistic freedom, insisting “We have freedom!”

All in all, the artists were loathe to lavish any praise on the West, with Jon telling AFP that “nothing in particular” about London had impressed him, and Ho denying that he had been inspired by any Western artists. He also defended his government minders, who kept a close eye on the artists the entire trip. “Of course we’re allowed to do as we please but I actually prefer to go out with someone because I don’t speak the language and know my way around,” he claimed.

During their stay, all four artists created European-style oil paintings of London cityscapes at the behest of the show’s British curator, David Heather, who hoped to disprove the skeptics. “The artists are talented in their own right—they are not painting-by-numbers in Pyongyang, which is what people’s perception is. They are genuine artists,” he insisted to AFP.

The more that 60 works in the exhibition, all made by the 700 artists of North Korea’s state-run Mansudae art studio (see “The North Korean Art Factory Cranking Out Soviet-Style Monuments“), also include traditional black and white landscapes, wood cuts, and propaganda images.

North Korea has recently begun encouraging tourism, taking part in a recent London trade show and welcoming an estimated 6,000 foreign visitors last year, compared to under 1,000 a decade before. Earlier this year, London’s British Council office presented a photography exhibition depicting everyday life in North Korea (see “British Council Exhibition Lays Bare Everyday Life in North Korea“).

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