Dawn breaks through a thin fog over Pyongyang, gray light cascading onto the pale Eastern Bloc-style apartment buildings below. The capital city of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—known outside the country as North Korea—is shrouded in silence. Here and there, a bird chirps—the only sound until a faint, ethereal tune begins to play. At first, its notes are so light and subtle that they seem to be born of the air itself. You might mistake them for the whistling of the wind, until they cohere into an otherworldly melody. The song, “Where Is Our Great Leader?,” is the first sound the citizens of Pyongyang hear in the morning, the alarm signal that it is time to get up and greet a new day. It is 5 a.m.
This is the daily scene captured in John Monteith’s video Pyongyang, North Korea, June 5 101 (2012) 5:00am-5:06:48am, filmed from the artist’s room high up in the Koryo Hotel on a trip that he and I took to the reclusive nation in the summer of 2012. Since the near-total collapse of the economy in the 1990s, tourism is one of the DPRK’s few ways of generating hard currency. Anyone can visit as a tourist, save for South Koreans and journalists. One must apply through a Western travel agency, which in turn makes all the arrangements, including securing visas, through the state-owned Korea International Travel Company.
North Korea remains a force field of fascination for me. Above all, I am intrigued by the degree to which art-be it propaganda or something else-infiltrates every aspect of life, from the surreal hymn captured in Monteith’s video to the astounding and often unintentionally hilarious didactic murals, mosaics and statues that one finds scattered throughout the country in place of advertising. On the street level, it often seems that the DPRK has more art than any other country in the world. Often overlooked or misinterpreted by commentators on North Korea who focus mainly on human rights abuses and the nuclear program, this cultural system reveals a lot about how the nation functions, how it views itself, and how art serves the ongoing project of engineering the ideal citizen and society.
The model of artists working alone in their studios, churning out works of art for commercial galleries, does not exist in the DPRK; the very notion would be regarded as bourgeois, reactionary, capitalistic. Art stars, in the Western sense, are conspicuously absent, since such radical individuality would violate propriety and infringe on the leadership’s celebrity status. (For a period, North Korean films did not even list actors’ names in the opening and closing credits.) Artworks are often unsigned and/or produced collaboratively. Art criticism, as a profession, does not exist, and there are no programs in art history at any of the country’s universities.
Formal exhibitions—as compared to public art displays—are relatively limited. Situated in the center of the capital on Kim Il-sung Square, the Korean Art Gallery, the country’s principal art museum, contains works dating from the 4th century to the present day. Many of the older pieces are in poor condition, some in dire need of restoration. Elsewhere in the capital, one finds occasional showcases, such as the Sun For All Eternity: National Art Festival in Celebration of the 100th Birth Anniversary of President Kim Il-sung, 2012, which featured works from the “Songun Era”—Songun being the “military-first” societal structure instituted by Kim Jong-il in the mid-’90s.
Education is free at all levels. Artists are scouted from a young age, officially on the basis of talent and unofficially on the basis of songbun, the pervasive but unacknowledged class system that reflects each family’s sociopolitical past and current influence. After training for at least five years at one of the country’s art academies, graduates are assigned to one of the professional organizations, the most prestigious of which is Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, boasting some 1,000 artists and 4,000 assistants and administrative staff workers. Once employed there, artists are permitted to paint or sculpt “anything they want,” since they have already undergone a rigorous ideological training that results in only “correct” images. Their quotas are purely quantitative, unless a special commission has come in. Certain practitioners—especially those officially designated Merit Artists or People’s Artists—may receive individual commissions; otherwise, requests go to the studio as a whole, prompting collaborative production.
As workers in a key part of the national propaganda machinery, artists are paid relatively well by the state. Salary numbers are closely guarded, however, so it is unclear just how much they typically earn. While no one is supposed to be “well off” in this theoretically classless society, the most handsomely compensated citizens—including many artists—reside in Pyongyang. In addition, trade on the country’s black markets has burgeoned in the past decade, and a large part of a family’s income is often generated by the “side job” of at least one spouse—usually female, as women are permitted to take up the occupation of “housewife,” which affords them more free time than most men enjoy. Upon retirement, artists are permitted to join the Songhwa Art Studio, which holds its own exhibitions.
Like their compatriots, artists must attend Saturday study and self-criticism sessions where the theoretical writings of supreme leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are taught. This indocrination is an extension of the only form of aesthetic philosophy taught in art school.
From the time that he emerged as heir apparent to his father’s dictatorial rule in the 1970s, Kim Jong-il became the DPRK’s chief aesthetician. A film buff—Kim reputably would visit the set of any North Korean production nearly every day to give “on the spot guidance,” a trademark practice of the DPRK leadership—the future ruler also penned a number of treatises on art and literature. Much more than his father, founding leader Kim Il-sung (who apparently wasn’t all that interested in art), or his son, current leader Kim Jong-un (who so far seems fixated on building ski resorts and fitness centers), Kim Jong-il was the mastermind of the propaganda machinery that endures to this day.
Not immediately considered for the number two role in North Korean politics, since filial succession was perceived as imperialistic in Communist-aligned countries during the Cold War years, Kim Jong-il ingratiated himself to his father through his flattering manipulation of artistic production. In 1970, he became deputy director in charge of culture and arts in the Propaganda and Agitation Department. Over the following decade, he devoted all his energies to building his father’s personality cult.
While much of Kim Jong-il’s writing is maddeningly dull and crudely tautological, anyone who seeks a professional role in the arts in North Korea must study his thought intensively. What it all boils down to is his “seed theory,” wherein each work should contain a seed of ideological correctness. This is not too far from the language of fascism, with its blood and soil metaphors. DPRK propaganda scholar B.R. Myers has famously argued that North Korea’s ideology can best be described as National Socialist rather than Stalinist. 1 In fact, Marxism-Leninism has long been absent from the country’s constitution. Juche—a concept often vaguely summed up as “man is the master of his own destiny”—is instead presented as the unique creation of Kim Il-sung.
Whereas Marxism-Leninism, broadly defined, was internationalist in outlook, Juche is extremely nationalistic. More commonly referred to within the country as Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism, it is an ideology by and for the Korean people alone, a shield against the ugliness and hostility of external powers. Juche emerged in the early 1960s, when the DPRK wanted to establish political autonomy, free from Moscow’s party-line directives. The doctrine was also one of the key components of the effort to play the DPRK’s two great benefactors—the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union—against each other, without ever fully embracing either side. 2 The real impetus of Juche is to produce something that is uniquely and ethnically Korean—something that South Korea could never achieve, as its people have been enslaved to the American imperialists since the end of the Korean War.
The aesthetics of Juche, according to Kim Jong-il, differ from anything that has ever come before: the philosophy is “the first ever to offer a perfect and integral scientific explanation about the standards, rules and essence of beauty. What is beautiful is what appeals emotionally to man and accords with his autonomous desires and aspirations.” 3 In his Treatise on Art (1992), Kim Jong-il further defines the three essential qualities of Korean painting as clarity, compactness and delicacy. He does not elaborate on this. His pronouncements are written to be memorized and recited on cue, not to be analyzed or discussed.
Whatever Kim Jong-il’s vague terminology may mean, one can readily discern that, in practice, the main forms of North Korean art are paintings and sculptures glorifying the leadership (namely, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il); chosonhwa, or traditional Korean landscape painting (particularly featuring Mount Paektu, the sacred mountain where the Korean nation is said to have first come into being and where, according to official propaganda, Kim Jong-il was born); Socialist Realist-influenced landscape paintings; and propaganda posters (which are not considered fine art). Photography does not exist as an independent art form in the DPRK, nor does Western-style video or installation work. Instead, popular entertainment predominates, especially acrobatics, mass dances and revolutionary operas.
Propaganda posters are North Korea’s most common form of art—and hence its lowest. Nevertheless, they have acquired a certain cachet with Western buyers, as they are dynamic as well as easy and cheap to acquire. Examples are customarily for sale in-country, though on my most recent trip there, in April, I did not see any in the usual souvenir shops and bookstores. (Rather, ink art and oil paintings were being promoted this time.) Yet the posters continue to be available on Western websites, usually run by people who visit the country regularly as tourists and stock up.
Generally, these posters are either local in content or tied to a particular campaign. For example, during the famine of the 1990s, there was a push to get people to start eating potatoes, since rice, a staple of the Korean diet, was in short supply. Other campaigns have sought to increase factory outputs, or to hasten the construction of buildings. The posters often make use of what Korean studies specialist Koen de Ceuster has dubbed the “frog perspective,” a from-below POV that makes the viewer a submissive recipient of the towering image. In one popular image, frequently reproduced on postcards and postage stamps, three oversize Korean hands join together in crushing an American soldier beneath one of his own missiles. This is just what North Koreans believe they did in the Fatherland Liberation War (known in the West as the Korean War, which officially ended in a stalemate), and what they promise to do again in the future, should the Americans ever provoke them.
Absolutism is part of the images’ naked aggression. There is no back-and-forth here; the meaning is thrust upon you; no alternate interpretation is possible. There are only two kinds of answers to questions in the DPRK: correct and incorrect. The notion of art or philosophy as a means of questioning the nature of reality is unthinkable. Art, and poster art in particular, is meant to educate, inspiring citizens with love of country, love of leader and hatred of the enemies—primarily Japan, the United States and the “puppet regime” of South Korea.
Kim Song-gun, one of the country’s best-known landscape painters, specializes in images of waves beating mercilessly against rocky shores. His work landed in the international spotlight in 2009, when Bill Clinton visited North Korea to secure the release of two American journalists who had been taken prisoner and accused of spying. Clinton was photographed seated next to Kim Jong-il with one of the artist’s large-scale wave paintings in the background.
While they may seem innocent enough to a Western eye, Kim’s pictures are, in fact, as thoroughly infused with state propaganda as the political posters and the depictions of rulers—albeit in a more subtle way. This is where talk of Socialist Realism in relation to North Korean aesthetics begins to crumble. In his landmark study Totalitarian Art, Igor Golomstock posited the following subjects as defining characteristics of Socialist Realism in painting: the struggle, the leader and, less importantly, the people at joyful, devoted labor. The most neglected areas were landscape and still life. 4 But in the DPRK, landscape retains a significant and highly codified role. Kim’s dramatic waves may pound relentlessly—just like the DPRK’s enemies, be they the United States or the natural disasters long blamed, domestically, for causing the 1990s famine that killed several hundred thousand DPRK citizens—but the land, the One True Korea, will always remain solid and strong, even in the face of the greatest adversity.
Rather than continuing to align the DPRK’s art with an outdated Soviet style that was internationalist in intention, one would do better to see the foreign influence as melded with North Korea’s own artistic forms and aesthetic; let’s call the mix Norko Realism. This is a socialist, yet also ultranationalist, “realism” that belongs strictly to the Korean people north of the 38th parallel, and cannot be understood apart from their ideology-infused quotidian life, which has existed for a relatively brief span of time (since the DPRK’s founding in 1948).
Of course the major subject one finds throughout Norko Realism is the depiction of the ruler, either “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung or the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il. Images of both men are to be seen nearly everywhere one looks. In each car of the Pyongyang subway, in at least one room of every office and every house, the two men’s photographs are hung side-by-side, dusted regularly and religiously maintained. To slight either of the leaders is to insult the Korean people personally; indeed, as a visitor, one has to exercise great care when asking one’s North Korean guides anything about them.
Not just anyone is permitted to depict the leaders in painting or sculpture. Only the most revered artists, most of whom are employed at the Mansudae Art Studio, have the honor of painting the Kims. (Although these works are ubiquitous, it is difficult for outside researchers to find out who the artists are. Portraits of the leaders are intended strictly for a domestic audience and are rarely included in exhibitions of North Korean art abroad.) Sculptural works, such as the giant statues of the two leaders that all visitors are required to pay respects to in the center of Pyongyang, are manufactured collectively at Mansudae in an area that is strictly off-limits to visitors. Rendered in blocky, almost cartoonish shapes, the bronze sculptures are works of epic kitsch that would have made Stalin blush.
Norko Realism’s greatest achievement is that it has managed to produce its own time. It is not so much that, through the limitations placed upon its citizens’ exposure to other cultures, the DPRK remains somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, but that it remains oblivious to those aspects of contemporaneity that don’t concern it. With its intent on producing something that is “purely Korean,” whatever that might mean, the choice of which outside factors are allowed to leak in is always somewhat arbitrary.
One painting style, as seen in works by Kim Myong-un and Choi Kyung-mee exhibited recently in Berlin’s Galerie Son, is clearly derived from Impressionism. It’s hard to say why a bright palette and feverish, dotted brushwork have become a North Korean fashion—as with everything else in the DPRK, conjecture plays a leading role in an outsider’s fathoming—but it is likely in part an expression of longstanding East Asian taste and in part a response to recent orders by foreign clients to Mansudae and the country’s other art studios. Then there is the art studio’s commercial enterprise, Mansudae Overseas Projects, whose clients tend to be African countries that commission monumental statues of their own leaders or revered historical personages. Recently, Austrian-born artist Oliver Laric elicited controversy when he ordered up several smaller male figures, shown last winter at Art Basel Miami Beach and elsewhere, in keeping with his ongoing investigation of artistic fabrication and authenticity.
Kim Myong-un’s Night in Pyongyang (2012) depicts the capital city aglow, a myriad of colored lights reflecting off the Taedong River. With an increasing amount of construction taking place in Pyongyang since the young Kim Jong-un took control in 2011 after the death of his father, it is very much how the city might look one day in the near future. But it isn’t how the city looks quite yet, and the memory of the frequent power outages and pitch darkness that once punctuated Pyongyang’s nights—and that continue to plague most areas outside the capital—remains fresh in its denizens’ minds.
Night in Pyongyang is not so much a misrepresentation as it is an image of an ideal state that has yet to be reached. In Norko Realism, the dream of purity and greatness never dies. Promising the perfect unity of leader, state, army and citizen, Ideal Korea is celebrated in the Ariang Festival mass games, the annual 100,000-performer spectacle of synchronized gymnastics that Andreas Gursky famously photographed. It informs Kim Jong-il’s opaque, yet mind-numbingly straightforward “philosophies” of Juche and Songun. It is expressed in the unquestioning mechanics of the everyday routine. It resides in the love of the fatherly leader, who alone protects the people from the hostile forces of an evil, uncomprehending outside world.
Thus Norko Realism can never be properly consumed by outsiders, as it can never completely bridge the disparity between what is represented and what we actually see. But for the populace of the DPRK, it is what fills the gap between ideality and the numbing horrors of banality and daily struggle—those variants of the real that we are all submerged in to a greater or lesser degree, no matter the place we call home.
Travis Jeppesen is a writer and critic who travels frequently to North Korea.