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North Korean Art Market Growing

The head of the Mansudae Art Museum Ji Zhengtai talks about a painting by a North Korean artist in the studio of the gallery in the 798 art district in Beijing, China, September 20, 2017. (Reuters)
North Korean Art Market Heating Up
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Seated under tall windows and wearing simple clothing, North Korean painters are hard at work in China.

The nine artists are putting canvases on picture frames and copying landscape images from computers.

One artist listens to an electronic device as he paints a group of running horses onto his canvas.

The artists, all of them men, have come to the Chinese border town of Dandong from Mansudae Art Studio. That art studio is North Korea's largest producer of art.

Other North Korean artists work in similar businesses along the border.

"Chinese have begun collecting art, and North Korean art is much easier and cheaper for them to obtain," said Park Young-jeong. He is with the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, a group based in the South Korean capital, Seoul.

Mansudae art studio

The North Korean government operates Mansudae. The art studio creates statues, wall posters and more. United Nations experts say it has built statues and markers in at least 15 African countries. The experts reported in February that a part of the business, called Mansudae Overseas Projects, helps the North Korean government raise money.

Visitors look at works by North Korean artists at the Mansudae Art Museum in the 798 art district in Beijing, China, September 20, 2017. (Reuters)
Visitors look at works by North Korean artists at the Mansudae Art Museum in the 798 art district in Beijing, China, September 20, 2017. (Reuters)

A diplomat at the North’s diplomatic office in Geneva said Mansudae had nothing to do with financing for weapons manufacturing. The Reuters news agency reported that no one from the arts studio could be reached.

The U.N. Security Council banned Mansudae's statue business in 2016. Two months ago, Council members blacklisted the art studio after the North Korean government carried out weapons tests.

Diplomats say the U.N. action will prevent the studio from doing business. "With this listing, anything Mansudae produces cannot be bought and should be frozen per the asset freeze," said a Security Council diplomat who did not want to be identified.

What do the Security Council's measures mean for existing Mansudae art? In Beijing, a business called the Mansudae Art Gallery claims to be the studio's official overseas gallery. Its head said the U.N. sanctions have had no effect on his business.

The Dandong Center, on the Chinese border, works with Mansudae, said its chief, Gai Longji. Asked on the day the sanctions took effect if they would hurt the art studio, he did not answer directly.

"We don't do politics," he said. "We do art."

The Reuters news agency spoke to at least 30 art experts and people who have sold North Korean art. Many said that the market for such art does not earn much money – especially in comparison to the possible billion dollars North Korea raises each year by selling coal and other minerals.

Growing demand in China

In China, the demand for North Korean art has been growing. Dandong is a popular attraction for travelers. Visitors try North Korean food, watch North Korean women sing and dance, and buy North Korean paintings.

Koen De Ceuster teaches Korean studies at Leiden University in The Netherlands. He said Mansudae is not the only business selling North Korean artwork.

"There's studios all across the country," he said.

Other famous studio names include Paekho and the Central Arts Studio.

Even with the sanctions, the art studios are still able to do business, Dandong traders say. Paintings from Mansudae could be sold under the name of an art studio that is yet to be named in U.N. sanctions.

Two businessmen said paintings have long been accepted instead of money in the region.

In the Chinese city of Yanjing, antiques dealer Zhao Xiangchen said people usually roll up one or two paintings and carry them across the border to him.

Since the sanctions were announced, Zhao said, Chinese customs officials have become more watchful.

"But I'm playing the long game," he said. "I still think there's a huge latent demand for North Korean art in the Chinese market, that's only set to grow."

I'm Lucija Millonig.

And I'm John Russell.

Sue-Lin Wong, Giselda Vagnoni, and Fanny Potkin reported on this story for Reuters. John Russell adapted their report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

canvas – n. a specially prepared piece of cloth on which a picture can be painted by an artist

landscape – n. a picture that shows a natural scene of land or the countryside

studio – n. a place where people go to learn, practice, or study an art (such as singing, dancing, or acting)

cheaperadj. less costly

obtain – v. to gain or get something

blacklistv. to say something or someone should be avoided

asset – n. something that is owned by a person or company

sanction – n. an action that is taken or an order that is given to force a country to obey international laws by limiting or stopping trade with that country, by not allowing economic aid for that country, etc. — usually plural​

antiquen. an artwork or object made during an earlier period

region n. a part of a country, of the world, etc., that is different or separate from other parts in some way​

latent – adj. used to describe something (such as a disease) that exists but is not active or cannot be seen