North Korean Art Smuggling Ring Sold Illicit Landscapes

Expatriate smugglers went outside the official channels to sell paintings to South Koreans

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The South Korean Yon Hap News Agency carried an odd story on Wednesday: A ring of art smugglers had been broken up, and a woman whose name was given only as Kim charged with trafficking some 1,300 paintings from closed-off North Korea to buyers in the South. It was the first time such a smuggling operation had been busted, police said, and it confirmed that North Korea had been selling cheap art on the sly through its expatriates abroad, as the South had long suspected.

Like pretty much everything else in North Korea, the creation of art and its sale are closely controlled by the government. The nation's main art-production facility is the massive Mansudae studio, which describes itself on its website better than we ever could:

With a labor force of approximately 4000 people, 1000 of which artists, and an area of over 120,000 square meters, 80,000 of which indoor, the Mansudae Art Studio  is probably the largest art production center in the world and by far the largest and most important of the country.


The Studio is divided in 13 creative groups, seven manufacturing plants and more than 50 supply departments. The artistic works realized at the Mansudae Art Studio range from oil paintings to bronze sculptures, from Korean Paintings (ink on paper) to ceramics, from woodcuts to embroideries, from jewel paintings (made with precious and semiprecious stones reduced to powder) to charcoal drawings and much more.

The studio sells paintings, woodcuts, drawings and embroideries (such as the at top, "Azalea in Prison" by Kim Choi Hak) on its website, as one of the means the country uses to get ahold of desperately needed foreign currency. Here's another, which is titled simply "Art Room" by Song Jae Choi. As NPR reported on Friday, the country can't export enough legitimate products to support itself. It sells minerals to China and "giant, ugly statues" throughout the world, but it also resorts to large-scale exporting of drugs and counterfeit goods, the report said. The report didn't mention North Korea's art exports, nor its line of state-owned restaurants known as Pyongyang, which dot China and Southeast Asia, probably because they don't bring in much cash compared to methamphetamine. The paintings Kim sold, mostly landscapes, started at 30,000 won (about $28) and went for as high as a million won (just more than $900).

But as the Yon Hap article pointed out, smuggling is a way for the the artists, or the people who run Mansudae, to make a little extra cash. Kim allegedly worked with her husband, a North Korean living in China, who"uses his membership in an expatriates' support committee in North Korea to secure his supply." Then Kim would sell the paintings in South Korea. "Essentially, Kim acted as an illegal art dealer, representing North Korean artists in markets they couldn't reach, then taking a cut of the proceeding sales, just as a Chelsea gallerist might," wrote Kyle Chayka, at Art Info.

The money allegedly found its way back to Kim, her husband, and Mansudae, Yon Hap reported. "Kim's husband is believed to have clinched the supply of artwork on the condition that he pays $8,000 won annually on top of half the sales proceeds to the art community, according to the police." But it wasn't a terribly lucrative endeavor. Kim allegedly netted about 30 million won ($28,075) for smuggling 1,308 paintings.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.