Despite consumer frugality following poor harvest, North Korean art trade hums along

North Korean artwork on display at the Korea Traditional Arts Center in Beijing. Image: Daily NK

Unification Media Group (UMG): We have several stories from North Korea to share with our listeners this week. I’m here with reporter Kang Mi Jin. What do we have for today’s program?

Kang Mi Jin (Kang): Sources in Ryanggang Province who reported that retired artists from the famed Mansudae Art Studio have been touring the country, offering their services for cash. The artists are producing works of art for patrons in several regions, including the outskirts of Pyongyang. The majority of these are personal works, however they are also offering scrolls upon request by special clients.

In as little as a month’s time, former Mansudae artists have been known to earn up to an entire year’s living expenses. After hearing rumors of their senior’s success, many regular artists have decided to travel the country and sell paintings depicting places such as Myohyang Mountain, Kumgang Mountain, and birch trees from the Paektu area on pieces of cloth that are about the size of a wardrobe.

UMG: When did the retired Mansudae artists first start putting their talents to use in private economic activity?

Kang: The nationwide movement to earn hard currency through various methods started around 2010. Since then, North Korea has been actively selling large numbers of artworks to foreign customers in China and Southeast Asia. Sources stated that due to Chinese nationals expressing interest in acquiring North Korean works of art, trade has been brazenly taking place across the Sino-North Korean border.  

It’s no surprise that art work is being smuggled to Chinese buyers. Retired artists putting unsigned paintings up for auction overseas is a regular occurrence. In reference to the positive reaction to this type of economic activity, multiple sources stated that North Koreans think that not relying on the government for assistance and using one’s own talents to make a living is a form of patriotism.

UMG: Let’s move onto the next topic. I heard that the variety of textbooks available for students has recently expanded in North Korea. What’s your take on this?

Kang: In the past, students in North Korea had to learn all subjects through a single combined textbook. However, up to 9 different types of textbooks have recently been seen in the market (music, English, art, etc.), selling for only 500 or 1000 won each.  

The textbooks have improved by leaps and bounds when compared to the 2000s. In my opinion, the quality of some of these textbooks can even rival those produced in South Korea. In the past, paper was scarce in North Korea. Outside of paper being provided for the state newspaper, it was difficult for one to even acquire waste paper for personal use. However, it seems like the problem has disappeared in present day North Korea, as seen in the production of various types of textbooks.    

Variety of North Korean textbooks on offer in the country’s markets. Image: Daily NK

UMG: Moving on again, let’s talk about the market situation in North Korea. Can you tell me more about the economic slump being experienced following the Chuseok holiday?

Kang: Following the Chuseok holiday, there has not been a lot of activity in the market. Most customers are only there to shop for ingredients for making kimchi and other supplies needed for the winter. After a poor harvest season caused by drought, residents have turned to a more frugal approach when making purchases this fall.

However, there are still a few individuals looking to purchase luxury items. These customers are sparing no effort when calling around trying to locate these goods, despite them being unavailable in local markets.

UMG: I’ve also heard that good marketing strategies are becoming a necessity in North Korea.

Kang: Targeted marketing strategies have started to take hold in the North Korean market. In the 2000s, advertisements used to only consist of a few words until around 2010, when they started to become much more complex.

For example, there is a rather potent leaf tobacco brand named ‘Daecho’ in North Korea. In the past, the only marketing slogan was the word ‘strong’ on packages. Nowadays you can see entire sentences like, “Just one hit will take your breath away, and two hits will make your head spin,” and, “A strong tobacco free from impurities”. The only limit to advertisements these days is the seller’s imagination.

Another example can be seen with foods. As temperatures are starting to drop, some vendors are using phrases like, ‘Potato cakes: you’ll be warm after only one bite’, and ‘Steaming Hot Tofu’ to attract customers.

Lastly, you can see these marketing tactics being applied to the exchange of goods as well. North Koreans tend to value receiving a discount or extra product when making purchases. To take advantage of this, street vendors will often give a little bit more of the product or a small discount to gain customer loyalty. This is similar to retailers in South Korea selling products at 9,990 KPW instead of 10,000 KPW.

*Translated by Brian Boyle