LONDON—It’s pretty clear when you’ve overstayed your welcome on North Korean soil. The DPRK Embassy in London is open to members of the public for the first time in history this week for a small exhibition featuring the Hermit Kingdom’s finest artists.
No one said anything directly, of course, but a few too many questions about life under a dictatorship apparently provoked the intervention of a smartly dressed official. He emerged from a side room, cracking his knuckles, and held a hushed conversation with the Pyongyang artist I had just interviewed.
The North Korean diplomat then approached David Heather, the show’s British curator, to let him know that there had been quite enough inquiries for one day. “All these questions from journalists,” he said, in a voice that was just loud enough to be overheard. “It’s finished.”
For a closed country where executions for trivial crimes are commonplace and millions are thought to be starving, it is surprising that the regime tolerated any candid questions at all. No one cut the interview short and, as Heather helpfully pointed out, “You are free to leave.”
No such luxury is afforded to around 100,000 people who, the United Nations estimates, are held in North Korea’s notorious system of gulags.
The exhibition of paintings, woodcuts, and embroidery, which features six artists who were allowed to travel to Europe for the show, came a week after vacations in North Korea were promoted at a London trade show. Up to 6,000 Westerners are thought to have visited the world’s most repressive regime in the last year, which is up from fewer than 1,000 in 2003.
Kim Jong-Un appears to have ordered more engagement with the West. When I asked why his face was absent from the embassy walls, which were adorned with the likeness of his two predecessors, however, the official who had called a halt to the interviews, shrugged his shoulders and acted as though he could not understand my questions. Baby steps.
“We’re trying to build small bridges between DPRK and the rest of the world,” Heather explained.
Certainly there was a friendly greeting at the door as a trickle of art lovers and curiosity seekers arrived on the outskirts of London for a glimpse at one of the world’s most secretive art collectives. The embassy is located in a modest suburban house one block from Acton Town’s BP gas station on the busy North Circular ring road.
Once inside the wooden double doors, the only clue that this is no family home are the paintings displayed on screens placed along the walls of two rooms. The building is clean and well-kept, but the décor, including a plastic clock and a small chandelier, doesn’t belong to this decade or the last.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the visiting North Korean artists feel right at home. “I thought before coming here that London would be very different from Pyongyang, but I’ve been able to glimpse the way of life here and I find that it is actually very similar,” said Ho Jae Song, one of the artists who had painted two London scenes during a 15-day trip. “One thing that I found most different from Pyongyang was that it’s not as clean. Pyongyang is actually a very clean city, it’s very fresh, the air is very clean too and I find that in London the air is a bit grittier, grimier.”
Clean, but what about living in fear of a violent regime? “I think that’s a misunderstanding, and a miscommunication. If you come and see for yourself of course it will be different,” he said. “I wish more people from London would be able to come to Pyongyang.”
Ho’s paintings of London, much like those of his colleagues, are pleasant, traditional Western-looking paintings of street scenes. The artists toured central London to photograph the subjects of their work before an intensive period of painting using British canvases and oils. Ho, 42, admitted that he had never stepped out of sight of the government minders but he insisted that was by choice. “Of course we’re allowed to do as we please but I actually prefer to go out with someone because I don’t speak the language and know my way around,” he said.
The curator had wanted the artists to produce work while they were in Europe in order to prove their talent to any skeptics. “The artists are talented in their own right—they are not painting-by-numbers in Pyongyang, which is what people’s perception is. They are genuine artists,” Heather said.
As well as these European-style oil paintings, Heather has collected traditional Asian black and white landscapes, wood cuts, and propaganda images reminiscent of the Soviet Union. All of the pieces in North Korea’s first public show in the West were produced by the state-run Mansudae art studio, where 700 artists work.
Heather, who also helped organize the New York Philharmonic’s 2008 visit to Pyongyang, said he had no qualms about working to further North Korea’s diplomatic mission. “My own personal view is that I don’t like the human-rights issues in any country. Yes, they are highlighted in the DPRK but we can see what’s happening in the Middle East every day,” he said. “Just ask the Americans about Guantanamo Bay.”