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First Flower of the Triumphant Return by Kim Won Chol, 2003.

Graphic design

Art from the world’s most secretive country

Reviewing Printed in North Korea, a book of art from one of the last remaining totalitarian states.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also called the DPRK or North Korea, is anything but democratic and anything but a republic; it is however still composed of people. It is all too easy to forget that—despite the decades of idol worship, travel bans, nuclear tests, and civilian executions—the average North Korean’s biggest crime is being born in the wrong country. They share our familiar emotions, desires, and impulses—including the artistic impulse. A new book by Nick Bonner, Printed in North Korea, sheds humanizing light on both the art and lives of talented North Korean artists.

The book opens with a few essays by Bonner and Koen De Ceuster, which introduce North Korean art and explain its importance to the utilitarian government.

Bonner tells the story of Hwang In Jae, a talented Korean artist who passed away a few years ago. Bonner met Hwang In Jae in 2004, 11 years after his first trip to the DPRK, while preparing to co-curate the sixth Asia Pacific Art Triennial in Australia. Over his many trips to North Korea, Bonner became friends with Hwang, who was “a small man, 61 years old, with white hair and an unassuming demeanor that gave no clue to his artistic talent.” They spoke at length about art history, Korean art, international genres, and more.

February of Northern Part by Kim Won Chol, 2005.

Hwang In Jae’s art—as well as the art from his peers—tends to fall into the “Juche Realism” genre, which aims to fill the public with a “sense of pride and purpose.” Introduced by Km Jong Il in his 1992 document On Fine Art, the “Juche” variety of socialist realism elevates every-day activities to mythic, almost “technicolor,” levels, communicating to the public that “no matter how mundane your job, you are an important part of the revolution.”

The Triennial was meant to be Hwang’s first venture outside the borders of the DPRK; however, the Australian government rejected his and his fellow country-men’s applications for entry, “on the grounds that they were artists from art studios associated with propaganda aimed at glorifying and supporting the North Korean regime.”

Painting Pyongyang by Choe Yong Sun, 2005.

In the book’s second essay, De Ceuster explains the importance of art in North Korea. One might expect a country with chronic famines and a saturating focus on national security to neglect art; in North Korea, this is not the case. Those with artistic interest are identified very early and encouraged to draw and sketch. At 16, young artists can switch to pre-university classes which “put them on a track towards a career as a professional artist.” Those who show exceptional talent then attend Pyongyang University of Fine Arts, “the pinnacle of art education in North Korea.”

Professional North Korean artists produce everything “from drawing, painting, calligraphy, printmaking and embroidery to pottery, sculpture, mosaic and monumental art.” The country’s best studio, Mansudae Art Studio, employs close to 1,000 artists and 3,000 supporting craftsmen and is frequently visited by the Leader, who gives “on-the-spot guidance and shares theoretical insights with the artists.”

Mansudae, like major American tech-companies, provides its employees with an entire campus, complete with barbershop, beauty parlor, spa, health club, kindergarten, convenience store, and sports fields. Portraits of the Leader are often done by the highest-ranking individual artists, but when most commissions come in, the artists work in close-knit teams. When not on commission, they are encouraged to pursue their own artistic desires—so long as whatever they create fits the party line.

Folk Street by Rya Sang Hyok, 2008 and Proud by Kim Kuk Po, 2002.

Art in North Korea—and thus the art in the book—falls into only a few categories: “Theme paintings” which exalt “the life and struggles of the Leaders, the revolutionary history […], the development of the Workers’ Paradise and finally the struggle for Korean unification.” Below theme paintings come landscapes, with still life paintings coming in last.

Interspersed among the pages are excerpts from Il’s On Fine Art, which still serves as “the bible of North Korean art theory.” Here are some of the most revealing:

The genuine viability of art is in making the whole society astir with revolutionary passion.

The strength of art is greater than that of a nuclear bomb.

Artistic work should be conducted as if it is done on a battlefield, on a front line.

Drawn from the author’s collection of more than 700 lithographic prints, the 240 page hardback book looks as appealing as its contents are impressive. Split into chapters on farming, industry, women at work, the Anti-Japanese War, and so on, Printed in North Korea presents a one-of-a-kind look at life in the DPRK. More specifically, the book presents a look at Juche realistic, state-approved representations of life in the DPRK. What we see are fields full of promising crops, shipyard workers donning soft smiles, high-tech divers laying underwater bridge foundations, and triumphant soldiers embracing their families.

Spreads from the interior of the book, featuring work by Kim Sang Ki, Ik Hyon, Jae Won, Hang Song Ho, Jang Song Pom, Ri Hong Chol, Pak Chang Nam, and an unknown artist.

The lengthy captions provided by Bonner, Simon Cockerell, and James Banfill betray the art’s dishonesty. The juxtaposition of joyful art and sad reality make each spread of Printed in North Korea an emotional and intellectual experience, as the reader attempts to understand the internal turmoil each North Korean artist must feel trying to reconcile the two.

Printed in North Korea is available on Amazon and on Phaidon’s website.

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