On his seven trips to North Korea, Dutch art collector Frans Broersen saw a lot of what he calls "rubbish," the sort of kitschy and predictable – though skillfully executed – Communist tropes associated with Pyongyang's paranoid dictatorship and the artists forced to toil for it. "You can buy the propaganda art by the kilo if you want," he says.
But Mr. Broersen was also astounded by the quality of paintings available in the closed-off country, with brush work and moods reminiscent of the Impressionists. He was so moved by some stylized depictions of traditional Korean houses and residential laneways that he told the artist they reminded him of Vincent van Gogh.
"He had never heard of van Gogh," Mr. Broersen says.
Mr. Broersen bought roughly 2,500 paintings between 2005 and 2010, assembling one of the largest collections of North Korean art in the world. He believes the collection, which just exhibited in Seoul, has clear artistic merit and is a valuable long-term investment. And although the art itself may not reveal much of substance about secretive North Korea, the process of collecting the paintings offered a telling glimpse inside the most mysterious country on Earth.
Some observers, of course, see the landscapes – lush, tree-lined mountains bathed by a setting sun, yellow birds balanced on the branch of a cherry blossom tree – and scenes of pleasant daily life as Potemkin-like façades that gloss over the regime's grim reality. Others suggest the collection is not representative of North Korea's artistic output, since Mr. Broersen mainly eschewed the propaganda "theme" paintings that overtly glorify the regime and its leaders.
"You won't see much North Korean life in the paintings," says Koen De Ceuster, a lecturer in Korean studies at Leiden University who is an expert in North Korean art, knows Mr. Broersen and is helping put on a separate exhibition of North Korean art in the Netherlands.
Mr. Broersen, 63, was accustomed to closed societies, having previously traveled through the Soviet Union collecting art before communism's collapse. But North Korea still struck him as bizarre. When he first visited, he wasn't allowed to leave his hotel by himself. The soft-spoken Dutch art collector figured the room was bugged, was accompanied everywhere he went by official minders and saw crowds in Pyongyang walking without smiles. After several trips, he was allowed out by himself and, in a bowling alley, noticed two young children pretending to shoot him from behind. He turned around and jokingly tried to scare them, but the children just shot at him more furiously.
"They probably thought I was American," he says. "The youngsters are absolutely brainwashed."
Although he has mainly skipped over the propaganda paintings, some of the regime's boosterism is reflected in the collection. South Korean intelligence agents, he says, prevented him from displaying three paintings at the exhibition in Seoul, because of propagandistic text that could be interpreted as glorifying the North. "It apparently says, 'We are doing this for the people,'" Mr. Broersen says, as he examines one of the banned paintings, showing a tram full of ordinary North Koreans.
He admits the artist who painted one snow-covered Pyongyang cityscape with red trams – which looks strikingly like Toronto – probably "overdid it with the cars" in an attempt to portray a thriving, wealthy capital. And one depiction of farmers is "totally unrealistic," he says, because the stocky, well-fed farmers smile as they work. But he is full of praise for the rest.
He didn't buy anything on the first trip, but subsequently negotiated personally with the artists at Pyongyang's state-run studios. As he returned repeatedly with loads of cash, people began to seek him out – such as a widow selling her late husband's art. North Korea's artists are paid by the state, but Mr. Broersen says the more famous painters are allowed more artistic leeway than their subordinates, as well as given larger studios.
Critics remain unimpressed. "North Korean art has a very beautiful and elaborate side to it, but it has no backbone – it's just beautiful and fancy," says Song Byeok, a North Korean propaganda painter who escaped to South Korea in 2002. "Art should throw a question at the audience. But North Korean art doesn't do that."
Mr. Broersen is certainly not the first person to buy up North Korean art. Nicholas Bonner, who runs the North Korea-focused Koryo Tours agency, has been buying art from North Korea since 1993, and has exhibited the art in various international exhibitions. Although North Korean artists are exceptionally skilled, he says, much of what they produce for foreigners coming through Pyongyang amounts to what he calls "dentist's waiting room art" – of little interest other than the novelty of being painted in North Korea.
Mr. De Ceuster, meanwhile, says Mr. Broersen's collection may contain some great artists, but is not representative of North Korean art because it is "too narrow in scope and does not take into account the non-aesthetic, political reasons certain artists are promoted in North Korea." Mr. Broersen, Mr. De Ceuster says, has tried to make a distinction between so-called political, propaganda art and aesthetically beautiful, non-political art. But this is "somewhat of a false distinction," he says.
"They are important not only for the reasons he has picked them," Mr. De Ceuster adds, "but also because [the artists] did what they had to do to progress in the system."
Mr. Broersen dismisses criticisms that he can't tell good art from bad, or that the more famous artists he's collected were little more than skilled propagandists. Some of the more well-known artists in his collection, such as Jung Chang-Mo and Son U-Young, who have already died, were well-respected in Asian art circles.
"There's a lot of cynicism," he says. "I'm not totally ignorant and stupid. The big guys were making art for themselves."
He figures most of the money he's spent – the most expensive painting cost him €17,000 ($23,503) – has gone to the regime, but he thinks the profits from many of the works he sold went straight to the artists and their families. He also gave out Western music and literature that he had sneaked in, and found North Koreans enormously interested. Once, he was driven around the countryside by a bus driver blasting a smuggled copy of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A.
He also noticed that access to mobile phones has exploded in recent years. Dissident groups have been smuggling in USB flash drives and SD memory cards with American TV shows, South Korean comedies and soap operas, as well as e-books and educational material on democracy. Mr. Broersen says his conversations with aid workers suggest that things are as grim as ever, particularly in rural areas, but his art-collecting ventures also gave him a chance to have some intriguing conversations with North Korean officials.
"I met some quite high-ranked people, and their private opinions are quite surprising," he says. "They are fully aware of where and how they are living."