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The image of North Korea finally meeting the South at the bargaining table was a historic one. But within the frame, there are small, important details.
Last week Kim Jong-un became the first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korea, in a historic summit meeting with his southern counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, that will test the region and Kim’s willingness to barter his nuclear weapons for the North’s future prosperity.
Recording a meeting of such significance is worthy of the most accomplished symbolic art of the European Renaissance. It cries out for a portrait of the two Korean leaders in the tradition of The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein, whose double portrait of a landowner and a bishop, along with a host of allegorical details, represented the unification of capitalism and the Church nearly 500 years ago.
Imagining today’s portrayal; both leaders flank a scaled-down version of their oval-shaped summit table. South Korea’s leader Moon Jae-in is on the left, in the painting’s middle ground and a tad behind his unpredictable enemy from the north, Kim Jong-un. In his left open palm Moon holds an overlarge Hershey’s Kiss, representing his impulsive American ally in the west. In keeping with the artistic constructs of the past, the table straddles the Korean Military Demarcation Line separating the two Koreas.
They stare outwards, with impenetrable expressions softened by imperceptible smiles. Their right and left hands lightly touch the surface of the table, tantalisingly close but separated by objects, including a graceful hourglass as a reminder of man’s mortality now beholden to the exhaustive but urgent timeframe of negotiating denuclearisation.
In the background stands South Korea’s Peace House, centred against the vanishing point of North Korea’s Mount Kumgang. The painting’s title, “We Came Here to Put an End to the History of Confrontation”, in the paraphrased words of Kim Jong-un, elides over the way in which a country little-known to the outside world used a mix of real intentions and game-playing to out-manoeuvre its opponents. The fogged-up magnifying glass in Kim’s right hand drives home the message.
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A still-life on the table includes a walnut, the fruit of a resilient wood that is not “prone to bending and warping over time”, according to a South Korean official. Next to it are seven mulberries, used to make “hanjis”, decorative paper hangings and an emblem of status for North Korean homes; their number represents not just the officials on either side of the negotiating table but their role in prioritising the need for security and safety. A delicate slice of Emmental pays homage to Kim Jong-un’s years of Swiss schooling as well as his fondness for the product. What looks to be a few ginkgo nuts are in fact olives, the fruit of a slow-growing tree traditionally planted in times of peace.
On a Korean Unification Flag-blue carpet in the foreground, 65 cherry blossom petals symbolise the years of division. They also highlight the vulnerability of South Korea and Japan should the United States end up accepting only the dismantling of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, thereby leaving their allies exposed to the North’s continuing military threat. Among the beautiful strewn petals, and in keeping with Holbein’s masterpiece, lies the anamorphic wing of an American bald eagle, difficult to make out unless viewed from the left-hand side, as proof that American bombers can still fly over North Korean territory.
Of course, the painting would not be celebrating a historical success, whether that be North Korea surrendering its nuclear arsenal or the lifting of UN sanctions on its economy. This is not a portrait illustrating the art of negotiation but the risks inherent in de-escalation. No nation that has tested its nuclear capability has ever given up its arsenal. Like much symbolic art, it is a reflection of existing conditions at the time and of man’s existential role within them, conveying the sentiment of hope while warning of the arrogance that allows him to ignore at his peril the meaning of those objects in the painting.
Immortalising a moment of history through the enduring depictions of symbolic art remains relevant in today’s era of instantaneous communication. Great art leaves an imprint of humankind’s perpetual capacity for wisdom or error. Through the storm clouds above Mount Kumkang can be gleaned the beginnings of a rainbow, though whether it diffuses its seven colours over a landscape that extends over and beyond the Korean peninsula, is still anyone’s guess.