Category: Korean Artwork
For the best possible display, this portrait should be professionally framed.
A frame is not included with this artwork!
Painting: 60cm x 38cm ≈ 23½" x 15"
Silk Border: 80cm x 48cm ≈ 31½" x 18¾"Information about how this Asian painting is mounted
A traditional village scene from North Korea...
Note: I have left parts of this story a little vague. I can not mention names and exact locations, as must avoid jeopardizing the artists and those who helped me...
My last art-buying adventure took me to the border of North Korea. I wanted to find some ethnic Korean artists on the Chinese side of the border. I figured that I could find good artwork for a lower price than what I had found in South Korea previously. I didn't know that I was going to arrange for artwork to be smuggled out of North Korea, and that I was going to make contact with the secret "underground railroad" of North Korean fugitives.
Long ago, during the Tang Dynasty, China and Korea had a little war. China got the upper hand and in turn, took some land from the northern edge of Korea. This land had people on it, and those people happened to be Koreans. Suddenly those "Koreans" became "Chinese". Well, at least they became Chinese by citizenship.
Today, this region (known as Yanji) is full of ethnic Koreans. They live a stone's throw away from the border between China and what is now North Korea.
The Chinese Government actually refers to the area as a "Korean administrated region". Meaning that ethnic Koreans with Chinese citizenship run the whole place, and everything is cool, as long as they don't break any rules or do something to annoy the Chinese Government.
All signs in the region are written in Korean (Hangul) first, and Chinese second. Of course, there was a time when Koreans and Chinese used the same Chinese characters as their system of writing, so both written languages have meaning in the Korean culture.
There is a "well-known secret" in this area: If you are North Korean, and you escape across the border to China, your Korean brothers and sisters on the Chinese side will take care of you.
North Koreans that escape (there is no DMZ on the north border, so you just have to swim across a frigid river, and not get shot by a North Korean guard) become the maids, nannies, and day laborers of Korean-Chinese people in China. But they have to stay in the underground network, as Chinese and North Korean spies are often trying to find the fugitives (you might call them "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers" if you are from the USA - the North Korean Government has much worse names for them).
Punishment is severe. The first offense will get your hand pierced by an iron rod. The second offense could mean iron rods through the hands of your family members in North Korea. At least this is the common story told by Korean-Chinese in Yanji.
It took several days to make contact with "The Chinese-Korean underground". Once I did, the man I made contact would not do any business with me until I got completely drunk with him (apparently a Korean custom for building trust). The next day, when I woke up at "the crack of noon", I visited my contact again. I told him what I was looking for (in Chinese), and he got on the phone, and relayed my request to someone (in Korean). He then told me that artwork would come across the border that night. But that I would have to get drunk with him again if I wanted to see any of it.
I suddenly realized that either Korean drinking culture is really extreme, or this guy really likes his alcohol (I think the later is more true). I tried to say that I was still recovering from the night before, but that just prompted him to drag me to the massage parlor for a foot and back massage to prepare me for the night's drinking binge.
A full selection of artwork was presented to me the next morning - or was it afternoon? - not sure when I woke up that day. I looked at every piece, and commented on the styles that I liked most. More messages were dispatched to the North Korean side of the Border, and more art was on the way.
It seems that the trust-building was paying off, as I was then introduced to several fugitive North Korean artists. They apparently all lived at my contact's home. Some of their landscapes were really great, and another was working on some interesting oil paintings. I thought it was a little odd, but these artists asked to be paid in U.S. Dollars. Apparently it's easier to funnel U.S. currency back to their family in North Korea. I am still puzzled by that fact. But then, these were fugitive North Koreans who live their lives "off the grid" in sort of an underground network of ethnically Koreans who happen to be citizens of China. I didn't want to ask too many questions.
In short, I arranged to have many pieces of artwork smuggled across the border into China and purchase several more from fugitive Koreans.
For the smuggling, it's kind of an odd situation, as the very Communist regime of North Korea does not want it's people to make money on their own. So the artwork itself is not contraband, but rather the fact that artists are being paid directly for their work is seen as cheating out the government.
Some of the artwork was rolled up very tightly together, and put in a plastic bag, and strapped to the back of a hearty North Korean who braved the icy water and armed North Korean guards to swim across the river that separates China from North Korea. That same North Korean will warm up on the Chinese side for a day or two, and then swim back to North Korea before he is missed.
Much of this Korean artwork is not signed, in fear of reprisals against the artists or their families.
But in a small way, we are supporting a tiny glimpse of capitalism for some underground North Korean artists.
For the security of the artists, I will not tell you who they are, which ones I met, or other details - though I really wish that I could.
For many years, the U.S. Government felt that the best way to bring North Korea to its knees was to place a trade embargo on North Korean goods. Apparently, the logic was that if we refuse to buy things from people who are starving to death, their government would eventually give up.
These embargoes and sanctions were placed on North Korea at the end of hostilities in 1953, and partially rescinded during the Clinton Administration. There are now great restrictions on what can be sold to North Korea, but harmless goods such as artwork can be imported into the USA without penalty.
This easing of restrictions may not last, as President Bush forced North Korea's hand by breaking most of the promises made by the USA during the Clinton administration.
There may be a time in the future when I can no longer offer this artwork legally.
See this article for more information: Washington violates agreement, forces North Korea's hand
This item was listed or modified
Jan 6th, 2009
Gary's random little things about China:
You can search long and hard, in every drugstore and sundries market in China, and you will not find underarm deodorant for sale anywhere.
After traveling all over China, I know this to be true everywhere in China except Hong Kong.
If you ask a Chinese person why there is no deodorant for sale, they will tell you plainly, "Chinese people do not smell bad".
My reply is, "Have you never been on a crowded bus in the summer?"