Art under control in North Korea

About the author
Jane Portal is Curator in the Oriental Antiquities Department at the British Museum, London, and is the author of Korea – Art and Archaeology (2000) and Chinese Love Poetry (2004). She has wide experience of both North and South Korea, having spent a year in both countries, and is creating a collection of contemporary North Korean art for the British Museum.

Nations have always requisitioned and utilized art works. If anything, this process proliferated in the 20th century, when art was widely adopted for propaganda purposes and those who produced it were strictly controlled by totalitarian states. It was the Soviet Union that initially kept the tightest control on cultural output and defined the needs of the state.

In many ways, art for the state in Kim Il-song's North Korea followed on from and copied that of Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China, notably the development of Socialist Realist art. Many features of the organisation of artists and the works of art produced are similar, and can be seen as standard features of art in totalitarian societies. In most circumstances, art for the state can be characterised as being essentially large-scale, dramatic and message-laden.

According to the official account, from the 1960s onwards, Socialist Realist art in North Korea took a new development and was independently guided by the philosophy of Juche. Juche was Kim Il-song's most important political idea, which he used to promote himself as leader of the North Korean people. Juche is usually translated as "self-reliance", although the academic Dae-sook Suh describes it in practise as "nothing more than xenophobic nationalism".

More articles in openDemocracy on North Korea:

Kim Kook-Shin, "Don't let a cloud stop the sunshine: the new president and the legacy of South–North relations"
(December 2002)

Jasper Becker, "A gulag with nukes: inside North Korea" (July 2005)

Hwang Sok-yong, "The ghosts of North and South Korea"
(December 2005)

David Wall, "North Korea and the 'six-party talks': a road to nowhere" (April 2006)

Socialist Realism is now referred to in North Korea as Juche Realism. Juche art theorists in North Korea divide world art history into two kinds: "peoples' art", reflecting the needs of the masses, and "reactionary art", reflecting the ideology of the exploiting class. Kim Il-song's 1966 instruction, "Let's develop our National form with Socialist content", is still regarded as the absolute guiding principle of Juche art. This "call" for a new Juche Art was in fact a paraphrase of both Stalin and Mao. Stalin had defined Socialist Realism as "national in form, socialist in content", while Mao called it "national in form, new democratic in content".

The "national form" of painting naturally meant traditional Korean ink painting or Chosonhwa, but oil painting (an imported western technique) was also encouraged. Large public wall paintings, which would normally be expected to be carried out in oils, were therefore also produced in ink painting, encouraging ink painters to paint realistically. Still today, there are many more ink painters classed as Merit Artists or Peoples' Artists than there are oil painters, as a matter of principle.

The subjects originally required by Juche art were limited to such themes as: portraying the General, the relationship of the military and the people, the construction of socialism, National Pride and such like. However, in the 1970s landscape was also approved, when Kim Jong-il instructed: "The idea of describing Nature in a socialist country is to promote patriotism, heighten the national pride and confidence of the public in living in a socialist country." The result has been a huge increase in the production of oil paintings of natural scenes.

All artists in North Korea are registered as members of the Korean Artists Federation and receive monthly salaries, for which they are expected to produce a certain number of works. Some artists work "on the spot", at factories or construction sites, whereas others go to an office. Both would be expected to work regular hours and have about two hours of study or discussion in the evenings with regular reports and evaluations. Abstract or conceptual art is forbidden and the subjects and themes of works of art are limited.

There is no question of arranging a solo exhibition but there is a National Art Exhibition every year and an Industrial Art exhibition every two years. There is no museum or gallery of contemporary art and no private galleries, but modern art is included in the displays of the National Gallery "because past tradition is a process by which the present can be understood". However, most of the works on display are also the ones that appear in all the books on contemporary art – there is no uncertainty as to which are the masterpieces.

In fact, there is no uncertainty at all expressed in North Korean contemporary art, no individual hopes or expressions, no mystery. As Kim Jong-il said: "A picture must be painted in such a way that the viewer can understand its meaning. If the people who see a picture cannot grasp its meaning, no matter what a talented artist may have painted it, they cannot say it is a good picture."


Click on the image below to launch a slideshow from Jane Portal's book "Art Under Control in North Korea" (Reaktion Books, May 2005):

Art under control in North Korea