More on Australia’s Denial of Visas to N. Korean Propaganda Artists

In Australia, five artists from the Mansudae Art Studio were invited to the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Queensland state to talk about 15 pieces the organizers commissioned for the exhibition, which includes work from more than 100 artists from 25 countries.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith rejected the artists’ applications for an exception to a visa ban on North Korea, part of targeted sanctions imposed in 2006 in response to the country’s steps to develop atomic weapons.

Organizers first spoke out about the ban as the exhibition opened on Saturday.

Smith’s department said in a statement released Tuesday that issuing visas for Mansudae studio artists would have sent the wrong message.

“The studio reportedly produces almost all of the official artworks in North Korea, including works that clearly constitute propaganda aimed at glorifying and supporting the North Korean regime,” the statement said. [AP]

I have to say that Dan’s points shifted my view of this story to a degree. I would now say that there are two questions here. One is the question of bringing North Korean artists to visit Australia and spend some quality time gazing at the store fronts and the traffic through the windows of their air-conditioned bus (good) and the separate issue of exhibiting propaganda for a repressive state while it publicly executes defectors and dissidents, murders racially impure infants, starves its people, and maintains a string of hideous concentration camps (bad). The visit’s backers insist that not all of the art is propaganda, which may well be true, because I haven’t seen the art itself.

Unfortunately, the government’s ultimate decision appears to be the worst of both: the “art” will still be exhibited, but the artists won’t be allowed to visit. Regardless of what the art depicts, of course, no government should ban it, although I’d oppose government sponsorship of its exhibition, and I’d also question the taste and morals of anyone who would choose to exhibit it without putting it in the context of how North Korea treats its people. We’d expect as much from any TV station that would broadcast “Birth of a Nation” or “Triumph of the Will.”

The accusation of censorship is ridiculous. Here, the Australian government (led by the very liberal Prime Minister Kevin Rudd) had made a decision not to sponsor the only forms of art permitted by the world’s most repressive state. How can it be censorship for one state to refuse to sponsor something that is sponsored and mandated by another state, to the exclusion of all other artistic perspectives? The accusation is hypocritical when coming from the operators of Koyro Tours, who are financial partners of the North Korean regime and therefore sponsors of its repressive system.

A final point on Koyro — the Australian government denied the artists’ visas because of its desire to comply with UNSCR 1874. I’m glad to see governments taking 1874 more seriously than they took 1718 or 1695, although it’s hardly clear to me how granting visas to a few artists violates any of those resolutions. What seems much more clear is that Koryo Tours gives the North Korean government a big cut of its profits by selling overpriced tours to see propaganda spectacles in Pyongyang. Unless — and this seems exceedingly unlikely — Koryo knows for a fact that Kim Jong Il is spending that money on activities not banned under 1874, Koryo itself is in violation of the resolution. I look forward to the day when the British government recognizes this and freezes Koryo Tours’s bank accounts. One self-serving argument we can dispense with is Koryo’s suggestion that tourists gain any useful knowledge of North Korea by watching hundreds of thousands of kids as they’re forced to hold up colored cardboard squares forming juche propaganda slogans.

Update: This looks a bit more like censorship to me.

1 Comment

  1. The picture I included in this “loose change” post shows most of the artworks, from a distance. Tomorrow morning I’ll try to find and link the news photo slideshow I found somewhere that shows some of the artworks in detail.

    It’s routine daily living stuff on display, it appears. Their studio is sponsored by KJI and does make propaganda, reports say, but it’s not clear that the stuff in Australia is part of that.

    I agree with you that it was ham-handed to ban the North Koreans themselves from entering the country while continuing to display their work.