Artwork from the North finds patron in WestWhen talking about all things Korea, there should be no difference between South and North.
At least that’s the opinion of the American art dealer Shin Dong-hun.
In addition to running a gallery in Silver Spring, Maryland, Mr. Shin heads up an association in the United States whose members are focused on art from North Korea.
“Although our country is divided, at least when talking about the art sector South and North should be one,” says Mr. Shin, who regularly shuttles to the two Koreas collecting paintings and other art objects.
Little is yet known in the global art community ― including South Korea’s ― about the North’s artistic endeavors. But Mr. Shin contends that the quality of artwork in the isolated state is on par with the South’s.
“Just as there are outstanding artists in the South, the North has a class of its own artists,” Mr. Shin, 55, says. “The emotion and mentality is very much Korean. The fact that they work in a relatively poor environment makes their effort and devotion to the arts even more intense than the South.”
Although he never pursued art studies formally, Mr. Shin’s firsthand meetings with artists in the North and familiarity with their artistic projects have shaped him into a sort of amateur expert in the field.
Thirteen years after immigrating to the United States, Mr. Shin opened his own art gallery in 1988 in the Washington D.C. suburb with money saved from a variety of day jobs ― including painting houses.
“I always liked to draw paintings but I never had any sort of formal training,” he says. “So when I started my own gallery and started to study art I thought I should deal with Korean paintings since at least I had some cultural background there.”
Even as he delved into Korean art, he discovered precious little information on work from the North so began to research more. He also set up a small office in Beijing, a base for information-gathering excursions to the area around Shenyang, where many ethnic Koreans live. His intrepid efforts did not bear much fruit, so he decided to go the whole distance to Pyeongyang, North Korea’s capital.
His first visit to the communist country came in March 1989.
“I did not know anyone, but after a year of poking here and there I built up a network and through connections got to know more and more people,” says Mr. Shin.
Since that inaugural trip, he has logged about 20 visits to the North, including four times in 2002. His most recent trip in March lasted two weeks.
These days, he can tick off the names and genres of about 50 North Korean artists, among them Cheong Chang-mo, a 72-year old referred by the North’s government as “A people’s artist” ― the most prestigious title available there.
To date, Mr. Shin has amassed about 100 pieces of North Korean artwork, which have been shown in his gallery. His next project will be finding a venue to showcase it in Seoul later this year.
by Lee Man-hoon