South Korea stops paintings brought from North Korea

FILE - In this July 26, 2015, file photo, North Koreans look at paintings on display in Pyongyang, North Korea. South Korea says on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, it has stopped businessmen from bringing in North Korean paintings in a potential violation of UN sanctions. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean officials said Wednesday they have stopped businessmen from bringing North Korean paintings into the country that a report said were purchased at an art studio under U.N. sanctions.

Observers say similar incidents could occur frequently as South Korea's liberal government pushes for deeper exchanges with North Korea.

The Korea Customs Service said it has nine North Korean paintings that an unidentified number of businessmen tried to bring into the country after a trip to Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, last November. It said the businessmen did not have the required South Korean government permission to bring in North Korean products.

South Korea's largest newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, reported Wednesday that the paintings were purchased from Pyongyang's Mansudae art studio, which is on a U.N. sanctions blacklist.

The studio is subject to an asset freeze and travel ban because of its dispatch of artists and other workers abroad to do projects to generate revenue for the North Korean government. In its Pyongyang studio, thousands of artists produce propaganda-themed paintings, huge bronze statues, mosaics and watercolors.

South Korea's Unification Ministry, which deals with North Korean policy, said it couldn't immediately confirm the Chosun report. Spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said government agencies will determine whether there were violations of U.N. sanctions imposed over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

An earlier investigation of the paintings showed that none contains pro-North Korea propaganda, a customs service official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter. According to the Chosun report, the paintings were of animals and each cost 300,000-500,000 won ($270-450).

The businessmen were among about 100 people, mostly foreign-based South Korean businesspeople, who made a four-day trip to Pyongyang in mid-November. The customs service official refused to identify them.

Personnel exchanges between the two Koreas have increased sharply since North Korea abruptly began talks early last year with a vague promise of denuclearization. South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants to expand ties with North Korea, but any resumption of stalled large-scale joint Korean economic projects needs to receive an exemption from the U.N. sanctions.

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This story has been corrected to show that about 100 people went North Korea in November instead of 80.

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