For the past year, Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) United Nations (UN) Office has been working with Korea Art Forum, with the support of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, to bring three artists and a curator from Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) to New York for the month of August 2017. The plan was that, while in New York, they would visit museums and galleries, and work with New York artists to do urban landscape paintings. We knew this would be a challenging project in light of increasing hostilities between the United States and North Korean governments, but MCC has a strong commitment to promoting dialogue and people-to-people relationships, even in the most difficult situations. The initial response from the Obama State Department was guarded, but encouraging, “as long as the ‘artists’ were really artists.” The North Korean government was also initially skeptical, but they eventually agreed to the project, selected three of the most prominent North Koran artists and provided them with passports and permission to travel to China where they would apply for U.S. visas at the American Embassy in Beijing. The Trump State Department was less receptive to the project than the previous administration, but eventually agreed to accept the visa application for the three artists and curator from North Korea. Heng-Gil Han, the Koran/American director of Korea Art Forum flew to Beijing to assist in the visa interview in late July. When the four North Koreans and Heng-Gil Han showed up at the U.S. Embassy at the appointed time, they were turned away, not even allowed to enter the Embassy grounds. After intensive calls to the State Department in Washington, the visa interview was rescheduled for August 9th. We then had to convince the artists to remain in Beijing for another two weeks so they could go for their rescheduled visa interviews. Since they had time in Beijing, Heng-Gil Han took the artists to visit museums, galleries, markets and historic sites in Beijing, and encouraged them to photograph the urban landscape in Beijing. Current events, however, complicated our efforts at peacebuilding.
On July 28, North Korea launched the first intercontinental ballistic missile which experts estimated could reach U.S. cities on the West Coast and Midwest and, on August 5, the U.S. introduced, and the Security Council passed, resolution 2371 which imposed strict economic, political and travel restrictions on North Korea, and the following day the Trump Administration posted a ban for American travel to North Korea without a special validation passport. After those negative signals, the North Korea government directed the three artists and curator to return to North Korea on the next available flight, August 8, one day before the scheduled interview. Heng-Gil Han asked the artists if they would give us the photos which they had taken in Beijing for us to take back and exhibit in New York. They readily agreed, giving us thousands of photographs that they had taken during their twelve days in Beijing. We then also contacted one South Korean and one Chinese artist and asked them to go to museums, galleries, markets and historic sites in the cities where they were, so we could put together an exhibit which would show photographs taken in similar places but by artists from different countries,– three from North Korea, one from China and one from South Korea. With the support from the United Methodist Women, the exhibit at the Church Center for the UN opened on October 12 and ran through October 31.
We saw the exhibit as an opportunity to understand the world view of the “other,” as expressed through the photographs of North Korean, South Korean and Chinese artists. We also saw the exhibit as an opportunity to bring people together. We invited staff from the UN, diplomats from North Korea, South Korea and the U.S. to the opening and closing receptions. We also invited students, artists, friends from the religious, arts, peace and Korean/American communities, as well as the general public. We may not yet have brought peace to the Korean peninsula, but we did bring diplomats from North and South Korea, UN Staff, New York religious leaders and scores of Korean Americans together in the Church Center for the UN to view photographs and try to understand the differing perspectives of the artists, and perhaps gain some insight into our common humanity and the type of dialogue necessary for peace.
Doug Hostetter is the Director of the MCC UN Office.