I’m in the North Korean embassy, chatting to Benjamin Zephaniah. A group of bored looking artists and diplomats from the Democratic People’s Republic are sitting, on chairs that look like they came from their country’s answer to DFS, under a painting of a horse. And this is one hell of a horse; it’s big, it’s brown, it’s muscular – I’d say it’s borderline resplendent.
I have to keep on reminding myself that this is Real Life, as it’s not that often you find yourself talking to a famous poet in a 1930s semi in Ealing, which also happens to be sovereign territory of the world’s most secretive and repressive regime.
I’m here for, of all things, an art exhibition. This week, the weirdest embassy in London opened to the public to show off the work of some of North Korea’s top artists. The small collection includes a mishmash of traditional, nature-themed, Korean paintings, and touristy watercolours of London, by those given special permission to visit the UK.
I ask the curator of the exhibition, a Brit called David Heather, whether there are any plans for it to be displayed in North Korea. He tells me it’s a possibility, but with the dulcet images of London directly contradicting state propaganda, I’m guessing it’s unlikely. Heather has written books on communist propaganda, and has a particular interest in the DPRK. When I ask some of the artists if they were surprised by what they’ve seen of London, they quickly wander off. There clearly are some questions to which I’m just not going to get answers.
I’ve been intrigued by North Korea since my early teens. It’s hard not to be – the DPRK is the topographical equivalent of a locked drawer in a creaky old house. So I’m hardly alone in my fascination. It’s shared, for one, by Zephaniah. Curious as to what an outspoken lefty dub poet has to say about the exhibition, I ask him what he thinks.
“I’m not really good on art,” says Zephaniah, whose recent discussion of the Turner exhibition at the Tate Britain would seem to contradict him. “I can see there’s some good work here. But I like political art, and none of this is political.”
Zephaniah is absolutely right. On the surface, none of the paintings in this small-ish suburban room have much to do with Juche, the ideology behind North Korea’s authoritarian regime, which combines Confucianism with communism. Surprisingly, the paintings of London are pretty flattering. A schmaltzy portrait of two smiling girls, sitting by the Thames, doesn’t exactly reek of the western imperialism that North Koreans are taught, from early childhood, to loathe.
Strangely, one painting of the current First World War memorial at the Tower of London, if taken out of context, looks like a particularly garish piece of North Korean propaganda. What appears to be blood pouring from the ancient prison and fortress (and is actually thousands of red remembrance poppies) could be read as a comment on Western military brutality. Next to a painting of a Garfunkel’s, it loses impact though.
But isn’t a North Korean art exhibition, in London, intrinsically political?
“In a sense,” says Zephaniah, “But this stuff is quite inoffensive. As the Americans say, ‘it is what it is’”.
I ask him what brought about his interest in the DPRK.
“Everyone should go to North Korea,” says Zephaniah, who, having done so himself, can speak about it with a certain amount of authority, “Firstly, you can see the truth – both the good and bad – for yourself.”
Zephaniah tells me that his guide in North Korea was the daughter of one of the men behind the state’s nuclear programme. She spoke to him frankly about the brutality of the Japanese occupation, helping him to understand the roots of their heavily militaristic ideology. He likens North Korea to an abused child – an analogy that I often apply to Israel.
“I didn’t agree with everything she said, but I started to see things from the North Korean point of view. We keep on calling them a communist state – they’re not communist. They don’t like communism.”
This is news to me. The first leader of the DPRK, Kim Il-sung, was appointed by Stalin. And the state’s anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist dogma surely must point towards some degree of socialism. But western misconceptions about North Korea must be common. Although their human rights record is undeniably atrocious, our understanding of the Juche philosophy is limited. In the west, our interest in the real-life Orwellian state is almost pornographic and tends to focus on the bigger (nuclear) picture, while forgetting that North Koreans are human beings.
“All these places that we’re supposed to have an issue with, I like to go and see for myself,” says Zephaniah, who has been to communist Russia, Cuba and Vietnam.
This embassy is probably the closest I’m ever going to get to North Korea. And there aren’t any prison camps here, just laminate floors and some quite shoddy printed portraits of former leaders Kim Il-sung and Jong-il, high up on an otherwise bare wall. A few cheap looking chandeliers hint at dictator chic, but as totalitarian interiors go, this is subdued.
“This is hardly groundbreaking art,” says Zephaniah, “But it’s quite a groundbreaking gesture from the embassy. When you go to North Korea and actually speak to people there, you see just how much they appreciate contact with the outside world.”
Very slowly, North Korea does appear to be opening up to the rest of the world. This exhibition, perhaps, is a bigger gesture than it seems and may be indicative of things to come. In 2012, the Associated Press opened its first office in the DPRK. Although, more recently, we’ve been more concerned with the country’s nascent nuclear programme.
Nukes aside though, it’s hard to look at a garishly colourful painting of a London street, by a North Korean, and not smile.