For sale at a recent Beijing art exposition was a painting with an asking price of $2,460 that depicted the snow-capped Mount Paektu, the mythical birthplace of the Korean people.
A portrait of a prim young lady in bright brushstrokes was being sold for $5,190. For buyers on a budget, there were colorful landscapes being offered for less than $100.
The dealer hawking the art made no effort to disguise who produced the pieces, despite stiff U.N. sanctions prohibiting the sale of such goods: “They were painted over there,” the dealer said, “in North Korea.”
The dealer, who had salt-and-pepper hair and refused to divulge his name, was a representative of an art gallery that trumpets itself as China’s premier seller of North Korean art. The gallery, The Paintings Say Arirang, also operates a studio for North Korean artists in the outskirts of Beijing.
Housed in a fenced and heavily surveilled compound, the North Koreans paint glorified, idyllic visions of life back home. For the right price, the Arirang studio says, the artists will render “exquisite” portraits at “unimaginable prices.”
The gallery’s existence and conspicuous sales tactics, experts say, highlight China’s lax enforcement of U.N. sanctions targeting North Korea to stymie Pyongyang’s nuclear program. A. The U.N. has sanctioned a long list of North Korean goods, including arms, coal and art. The U.N. has also sought to block North Koreans from working overseas in the hopes of preventing North Korea from garnishing the wages of such laborers to fund its nuclear program. U.N. report in March singled out Arirang for selling North Korean art and hosting North Korean artists in apparent violation of sanctions.
The U.N. reported that Arirang did not respond to requests for information.
Arirang was not hard for the U.N. to find. That’s because the gallery is actively seeking to tap a niche audience drawn to the unique, socialist realist style of North Korean artists.
Arirang was founded by Jin Zhe, an ethnic Korean and art lover born in China near the North Korean border, according to posts written by Jin on Arirang’s website. The son of a prominent painter, Jin spent years at a Chinese state-run radio station before a trip to Pyongyang instilled a taste for North Korean art. Jin, Arirang’s director, couldn’t be reached for comment.
An Arirang employee told The AP by phone that the studio was in operation and offered a tour of the complex. She also said the studio was selling customized portraits by its North Korean artists. The employee, a woman identifying herself as surnamed Shen, changed her story a few days later, saying the base wasn’t in operation because “business is bad.”
When AP journalists visited the “painting base,” guards turned them away.
In lengthy posts on Chinese chat application WeChat, the art gallery expounds at length on the beauty rendered by North Korean artists because they are free from the fetters of the “market economy.”
“They do not compare who is richer than the other, but simply focus on pure aesthetics,” Arirang wrote on WeChat. “They regard the pursuit of art as a mission of spiritual civilization,” not vulgar commodification.
Such art is exceptionally valuable, Arirang said, “because of its superb realistic skills, high-cost performance, high collection value and other advantages.”
In most countries, art is seen as a form of self-expression. But in North Korea it is strictly regulated. Artists work directly for North Korea’s propaganda authorities, and their mission is to create art glorifying the state and its socialist, nationalist ideology.
Their work also provides income for the North Korean state.
DAKE KANG, BEIJING, MDT/AP