Recent Artwork Sales Abroad Support North Korean Economy

The Hong Kong Cultural Centre hosted an exhibition and sale of North Korean paintings in December 2019.



North Korea is looking to its art sector as part of its effort to survive U.S. and international sanctions pressure.

During a plenary of the ruling Workers' Party held at the end of 2019 in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un ordered the rearrangement of North Korea’s economic foundation to “fully tap” the country’s production potential.” He no longer appears to be seeking relief from sanctions that continue to strain North Korea’s economy. 

And the sanctions are tightening: A United Nations measure requiring repatriation of North Korean laborers came into effect in recent weeks, and the U.S. on Tuesday designated two companies for their roles in illicitly exporting workers in violation of the U.N. restrictions. 

North Korea will “have to live under the sanctions” imposed by the international community, Kim said in a report on the agenda pertaining to “the orientation of our immediate struggle under the present internal and external situation.” 

One way to uphold the slogan “Let Us Break Through Head-on All the Barriers to Our Advance!” presented during the Workers' Party plenary is by focusing on non-designated sectors, including art. Though the profit margins may not reach that of other sectors, such as tourism, North Korean art is another source of revenue for the regime, according to media reports. 

And the niche for North Korean artwork is expanding, particularly in China. 

Works by the Mansudae Art Studio were exhibited and sold in various Chinese cities in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Pyongyang, Kharon reported in October. Mansudae Art Studio was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in February 2016 for being responsible for the exportation of workers to nearly 20 countries to generate revenue for the North Korean government.

It is unclear what happens to the revenue gained by selling works by Mansudae Art Studio. Pier Luigi Cecioni, an Italian seller of Mansudae Art Studio art, has said in media interviews that proceeds from his dealings went directly to the artists and the studio, rather than to the North Korean government. Mansudae Art Studio is, however, controlled by the Workers' Party of Korea, according to South Korean government reports. 

At least two more exhibitions of North Korean art, some of which was produced by the Mansudae Art Studio, were held last month in China.  

Jihua Chunqiu

On Dec. 6, 2019, Jihua Chunqiu Auction Co Ltd auctioned North Korean oil paintings at the Beijing International Hotel. The Beijing-based company has held auctions of North Korean art before: Jihua Chunqiu auctioned North Korean “modern and contemporary art” in December 2018.

In its latest auction, Jihua Chunqiu put up for bid 119 pieces of North Korean oil paintings on the online platform ePaiLive, though not all of the pieces were sold, according to another online auction platform, ArtFox. The highest priced sale was for Mansudae Art Studio artist Jung Chang Mo’s “Hundred Flowers (百花图),”which sold for CNY 6,000,000 (USD 853,203), six times its starting price. The total amount of revenue from the auction hosted by Jihua Chunqiu Auction Co Ltd was nearly CNY 7 million (USD 995,403) based on a calculation of the listed sales prices of the artwork posted on ArtFox.

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