Book review Tuesday: Lankov and Foster-Carter

Book Review 1: The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves-And Why It Matters
Author: B.R. Meyers
Reviewed by: Andrei Lankov
Review Publisher: Far Eastern Economic Review (the last issue)
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Most books on North Korea focus on the nuclear issue, that never-ending soap opera of the international diplomacy. In the rare cases when North Korean domestic dynamics are taken into account, the authors (most of whom do not speak or read Korean) concentrate on the official pronouncements of the regime.

Brian Myers takes a fresh approach. He largely ignores what the regime tells the outside world about itself, but concentrates instead on what North Koreans themselves are supposed to believe, paying special attention to the North Korean narratives and mass culture, including movies and television shows. North of the DMZ, mass culture is not about entertainment. Rather it is a lighter version of propaganda whose task is to deliver the same message, but in more palatable form.

As in the case in the Soviet Union, Pyongyang uses works of fiction to send signals which cannot be transmitted otherwise due to current political considerations. For example, when North Korean media found a few kind words for South Korean President Kim Dae Jung who visited North Korea in 2000 with impressive amounts of giveaway cash, North Korean novels still ridiculed him as a pathetic double-dealer.

Continue Reading here…

Bookr review 2: North Korean Posters
Editor: David Heather
Reviewed by: Aidan Foster-Carter and Kate Hext
Review Publisher: Print Quarterly, December 2009 issue (Vol XXVI no 4), pp 429-31.
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North Korean art is hardly well-known, but it has recently seen something of a surge. For this David Heather can claim some credit, and does. As he boasts in his brief (just one page) preface to this block of a book, “I held the largest exhibition of North Korean Contemporary Art in the West in June 2007 in the heart of London and managed to fly the North Korean Flag in Pall Mall for probably the first time ever” (p.7, capitals in original).

That militant tone, here tongue in cheek, is deadly serious in North Korean Posters. On page after gaudy page angry Korean heroes curse and smite the foe, mostly Americans with hook noses. Fists, tanks and sledgehammers crush; bayonets lunge and stab; rockets rain down – including on a shattered US Capitol (p. 138), in blithe disregard of post-9/11 sensitivities.

In a year when North Korea has been censured by the UN for testing a nuclear device and a long-range missile, such images can only reinforce stereotypes of what Koen De Ceuster in his introduction calls a country “often misrepresented and largely misunderstood” (p.9). Yet there is more to North Korean art than this, as anyone who attended David Heather’s shows at La Galleria can attest. (For those who missed out, images and comment can still be found by searching Philip Gowman’s London Korean Links website, an indispensable resource.)

Here one finds a commercial tie-in modestly unadvertised in North Korean Posters. The said posters, plus a range of other artworks – various genres of painting, tapestry and ceramics – may be purchased via, which proclaims that: “La Galleria Pall Mall has the privilege to be the only Gallery outside DPR Korea to be permitted to sell art and represent individual artists from North Korea. We can certify that all the works are original and authentic, made and signed by the artists themselves in Pyongyang.” These posters, here described as “Propaganda Popart” (sic), can be yours for £250 each (unframed) plus postage.

“Individual artists”? Not one is named in the book under review. Nor are the pieces dated; so one cannot trace the evolution of styles or themes, let alone particular artists. By contrast, the first volume in this series by Prestel – Soviet Posters, featuring Sergo Grigorian’s collection (2007) – is divided into six periods; each work is dated, with notes on artists and other detail. The absence of such basic data in North Korean Posters is a serious omission. De Ceuster’s useful Introduction gives the broad context, yet is oddly free-standing. With few exceptions the posters are left to shout for themselves, with no information except basic translations of the slogans – which, bizarrely and inconveniently, are printed sideways rather than below.

Furthermore, when is a North Korean poster “original and authentic”? De Ceuster notes that “hand-painted reproductions find ready buyers abroad.” is silent on this key question for collectors: what exactly does your £250 buy, an original or a copy? (Also its comments on the actual art are trite, even illiterate: gouache and propaganda are misspelled.)

The ambiguities go on. Curiously, Northkoreanart does not say who exactly is its partner in Pyongyang, but its sister site reveals this as the Mansudae Art Studio. Yet a search swiftly brings up, based in Italy and claiming to be “the only official web-site of the Mansudae Art Studio in the West,” which pipped Heather to the post with an exhibition in Genoa in May 2007. Will the real Mansudae reps please stand up? The Italian site is far more educative. Through it one can buy The Hermit Country, which despite a clichéd title (it must have miffed the comrades) is a much better, broader book on modern North Korean art, not limited to posters. The moving spirits here are a pair of Pier Luigis: Cecioni, a collector who owns 600 works; and Tazzi, an idiosyncratic but insightful critic.

For a serious academic survey, Jane Portal’s aptly titled Art Under Control in North Korea (Reaktion/British Museum, 2005), with its fully integrated text and illustrations, is essential. The current art scene in Pyongyang was recently described in an excellent piece by Adrian Dannatt in March’s Art Newspaper. This is big business, on an industrial scale. Mansudae has a thousand artists producing “at least 4,000 top level original works a year [and] a factory-style section producing copies for western hotels;” while abroad it claims to have held over 100 shows in some 70 countries.

Perhaps there are yet more ‘sole agents’ out there? North Korea lends itself to a Columbus complex. People who happen upon it often imagine they are the first ever to do so, and even when disabused they like to claim a special niche. Scepticism is in order, on many counts.

As Dannatt says: “it could not be easier to assemble a collection of contemporary DPRK art … but it could not be harder to source the originals.” He quotes Nicholas Bonner, the doyen of collectors in this area – he began in 1993, and is curating a major exhibition in Brisbane in December – on how many ‘original’ works are in fact copies, and how to tell the difference. Bonner’s website, showcasing his gallery in Beijing, makes no monopoly claims but focuses on the actual art. Interestingly Bonner eschews the propaganda genre, but has a fascinating selection of film posters: a far less aggressive variant, ignored by Heather. He is also scrupulous in specifying that what he offers are “hand painted copies.”

But back to the book. North Korean Posters is a sadly missed opportunity. It reiterates visual cliché, but gives almost no context – historical, political, artistic – for these specific works. It is just a picture book to flick through: no dates, no dimensions, no artists. For a publisher of Prestel’s stature these are shameful lapses. Is the image somehow meant to speak for itself?

Absent such essentials, this is just another twist on commie chic – like Che Guevara T-shirts. It is all very postmodern and cynical. Once upon a time North Korea was communist. Some of these posters are about ideals people believed in, as they strove to build a better society. In today’s DPRK, a half-starved neo-feudal tyranny, one of the few ways to earn hard cash is factories of well-trained draughtsmen flogging second-hand images – bilious or kitsch, take your pick – to gullible, exoticizing Westerners. (Here as in all else, the contrast with South Korea’s brilliant and original art scene is acutely painful.) The laugh is on us too, if we just gawp at these admittedly striking visuals. Have we lost our minds? Do we care to know what we are we looking at? Neither Heather nor Prestel seem bothered. Caveat lector – et emptor.

I used a copy of Soviet Posters and North Korean Posters to make this artistic discovery.


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