Amidst the tantalising snippets of information about North Korea acquired through news reports, one is hard-pushed to find any commentary on art in the country. Walking through the streets of Pyongyang, however, you are struck by the ubiquity of it. As with all that is on display in the Hermit Kingdom, it serves to promote the government, and far from lending charm to the surroundings, its only achievement (at least for the outsider) is to create a troubling and suffocating atmosphere.
North Korea's socialist realism art style, reminiscent of the propaganda art that sprang up in Russia and then China during the Russian and Cultural revolutions (and no less misleading) shot into existence during the 1940s, when, after decades of struggle against the Japanese occupation, the country was finally liberated. Although in reality this was a side-effect of the US's obliteration of the Japanese naval fleet at the end of the Second World War, the people of North Korea consider their path to freedom to have been beaten out by Kim Il Sung, who subsequently became president of the fledgling republic. The combination of the force of Kim's will and personality and a people decimated by decades of oppression led to the birth of one of the world's most fanatical personality cults.
The moment that the country and its society fell into step behind Kim Il Sung, its creative output followed suit. Some of the only visible signs of North Korea's artistic past lie within the Koryo Fine Arts Museum in Pyongyang, where it is possible to pinpoint the exact moment when the country disowned its cultural heritage. Herons and waterfalls give way to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il's inescapable, benevolent and watchful gaze. Often, they are surrounded by hordes of adoring citizens, whose faces are lit up by the rapture of boundless love and devotion. One is reminded, not a little uncomfortably, of scenes from the New Testament. Indeed, the North Koreans' holy trinity is completed by Kim Jong Suk (wife of Kim Il Sung and mother to Kim Jong Il), whose countenance, although not as omnipresent, is no less divine.
Nestled alongside these portraits are more explicit propaganda paintings, featuring the 'borrowed' hammer and sickle, American soldiers given vampiric makeovers, and countless scenes of the heroic exploits of the Korean People's Army; here, the soldiers are always moving forward, staring determinedly ahead, defiant against the threat.
Back out in the street, the story is much the same. Pyongyang is a shrine to the exploits of the Kims and their subjects; towering monuments extol the virtues of subservience to the state, and breath-taking mosaics and murals of an impossible size provide a constant reminder of the absolute control that the government has over the country and its people. The paintings are brightly coloured and vivid and, despite their overbearing message, manage to inject a cartoonish character into the otherwise monotonous concrete landscape.
One cannot deny the skill involved in the creation of these artworks. Their scale and perfection is uniform throughout the country, and the output staggeringly prolific. However, one cannot escape the fact that they exist solely because of the desires of a crushingly totalitarian political family. They are the result of a system in which human labour has no cost. The fact that these shining, immaculately kept tributes to the Kims are always within eyesight of the crumbling, squalid housing their subjects are forced to live in only highlights the levels of inhumanity that their egomania pushes them to. Ultimately, one's appreciation of the art in North Korea is contingent upon the age-old question: can you truly admire a piece of art for its own sake, in spite of its moral ambiguity?