Kim and Moon: Korea’s modern-day ‘Ambassadors’

Kim and Moon: Korea’s modern-day ‘Ambassadors’

Kim Jong Un last week became the first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korea, as he attended 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 Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” of 1533, the double portrait of a landowner and a bishop, along with a host of allegorical details, that 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 is on the left, in the painting’s middle ground and a tad behind his unpredictable enemy from the north. In his left open palm, Moon holds an over-sized Hershey’s Kiss, representing his impulsive American ally. In keeping with the artistic constructs of the past, the table straddles the military demarcation line separating the two Koreas. 

They stare outward, 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 denuclearization.

No nation that has tested its nuclear capability has ever given up its arsenal.

Trisha de Borchgrave

In the background stands South Korea’s Peace House, centered 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, speaks of the way in which a country little known to the outside world used a mix of real intentions and game-playing to outmaneuver its opponents. The fogged-up magnifying glass in Kim’s right hand drives home the message. 

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 prioritizing the need for security and safety. A delicate slice of Emmental cheese pays homage to Kim’s years of Swiss schooling, as well as his fondness for the product. What look to be a few ginkgo nuts are, in fact, olives: The fruit of a slow-growing tree traditionally planted in times of peace.

On blue carpet — the color of the unified Korea’s flag — in the foreground, 65 cherry blossom petals symbolize 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 its 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 is 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.

Immortalizing 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. 

• Trisha de Borchgrave is a writer and artist based in London. She can be reached at and through Twitter: @TrishdeB

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