This is Senegal — home to 15 million people, one of the region’s relatively more stable democracies, and the Westernmost country in Africa. Dakar — its capital, and Senegal’sWesternmost city. And within Dakar, this is the African RenaissanceMonument, situated on the very Western edge of the Cape Verde Peninsula.
On the third of April, 2010, this was the place to be in Africa. It was the day before the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence and 19 presidents plus US congressman Jesse Jackson had flown in to witness the unveiling of this humongous bronze statue. At 49-meters or 160-feet high, it was and still is the tallest statue on the continent, taller even, than the Statue of Liberty or Christ the Redeemer. The Socialist Realist-style man, woman, and child were intended to represent, quote, “Africa emerging from darkness, from five centuries of slavery and two centuries of colonialism”.
The hill on which it stands, however, is awkwardly surrounded by squatter camps and garbage dumps, which may help explain why today, over a decade later, it never quite achieved its stated goal of rivaling the Eiffel Tower as a tourist destination. There are many strange things about this statue. For one, there’s its liberal use of nudity to represent a 96% Muslim country, There’s it’s officially $25 but rumored$70 million dollar price tag, in a country where half the population lives below the poverty line.
Indeed, thousands of locals protested the project, calling it an embarrassing testament to the government’s corruption, self-obsession, and backward priorities. Then there was the president’s controversial decision to personally claim 35% of the profits to this public monument. But far stranger than all of this is the fact that despite a 50% local unemployment rate, this entire piece was outsourced to a foreign firm. And not just any foreign firm.
This massive tribute to African ingenuity and pride was built by North Korea. The African Renaissance Monument isn’t unique in this respect. All over Africa, and even in Europe and elsewhere are statues, museums, buildings, and monuments built entirely by and in North Korea. This is, in fact, its single largest export.
When the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was founded in 1948, its existence was recognized only by a handful of Communist countries like the Soviet Union, China, and Romania. Decades before it began unification talks with the South, North Korea was looking for international legitimacy — a need for which it was very much willing to overlook just about anything. Kim Il-Sung was also committed to the ideological spread of Socialism, actively trying to promote the “Juche” philosophy of self-reliance long before it would be laughed at as a model for the rest of the world.
It was for this reason that this nascent nation began making allies in Africa. It did so by donating money, weapons, and soldiers, all of which went a long way at a time of desperate need. The DPRK military, for instance, trained Somali forces in their fight against Ethiopia, which had previously supported the South during the Korean War.
A few years later, when Ethiopia’s government was overthrown by Marxists, North Korea began supporting Ethiopia’s fight against Somalia, both of which established with it diplomatic relations. In the 70s, North Korea sent thousands of of troops to Angola during its civil war. At the same time, at home, the Kim Il-Sung regime was busy sowing the seeds of what would become a propaganda machine rivaling any of history’s most intense cults of personality.
This began, rather inconspicuously, with the founding in 1959 of the Mansudae Art Studio. Backed by the Supreme Leader himself, its task was simple, though not easy: forge the public image of a leader who was then dangerously at risk of being seen as merely human.
In practical terms, this meant painting murals, architecting buildings, and sculpting monuments. Thanks to its artistic monopoly, virtually all of Pyongyang’s landmarks are its work. This includes the flame-topped Juche Tower, which stands exactly one meter taller than the Washington Monument, all of its propaganda posters, and the giant murals inside the Pyongyang Underground. In the 70s and 80s, Mansudae was also assigned the job of constructing diplomatic gifts to current or potential allies.
Ethiopia, for example, was given its VictoryMonument. Likewise, the presidential palace of Madagascar was built by North Korea, completely free of charge. It was a cheap, easy way to win friends and influence autocrats. Then, as with all things North Korean, a tectonic shift occurred in the 90s. While the country was never completely the obedient puppet state Moscow wanted it to be, it did very much rely on the Soviet Union for material support. With its collapse, North Korea instantly lost its biggest ally and financial backer. It needed cash. It needed a lot. And it needed it yesterday. The problem was, frankly, it didn’t have all that much to offer.
By 1990, South Korea’s GNP had grown to$237 billion dollars to the North’s puny 23. Faced with this existential predicament, it turned to several unconventional gigs. In the intervening 3+ decades, the MansudaeArt Studio had both honed its craft and grown to become one of, if not the largest art studios in the world. Occupying about 30 acres in Pyongyang, its campus contains 13 creative groups, seven factories, and 50 supply departments.
There’s a paper mill, soccer stadium, kindergarten, sauna, clinic, and gift shop. It has a reputation as the most prestigious career path for promising North Korean students. Each of its 4,000 artists is expected to churn out a steady stream of propaganda — 2 paintings a month, for example. According to a South Korean study, Kim family artifacts, including all films, books, murals, statues, and so on, add up to 40% of the state’s visible budget.
So, while the Mansudae Overseas Projects division was originally commissioned for the sole purpose of making allies, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it took on a far more sinister purpose: generating foreign currency for the personal bank accounts of the Kim family. The African Renaissance Monument, although the tallest, is only one of the dozens of projects. Altogether, they’ve earned an estimated$160 million for the regime in the last ten years. One of its more loyal customers is the nation of Namibia.
It commissioned a 5,000-seat war memorial, presidential palace, independence museum, military museum, Ministry of Defense headquarters, munitions factory, and presidential statue. Property records indicate North Korea bought a warehouse for around $120,000 US Dollars in 2004, and some locals say they still see North Koreans come and go to this day. Its northern neighbor, Angola, is also a frequent patron. In addition to a park and peace monument, there’s the curiously shaped mausoleum of its first president which locals gave the nickname “Sputnik”.
In the Congo, a statue of its third president rose eyebrows for its suspicious likeness to the body of Kim Jong-Il. Some speculate it was a lazy “repurposing”, though the artists can be forgiven given the lack of diversity involved in their day-to-day work. In Zimbabwe, several of its statues generated extra controversy thanks to its, especially egregious past. In the 80s, North Korean-trained troops massacred thousands of citizens after the Rhodesian Bush War. There are even a few examples outside Africa.
Visitors to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, for example, may also stop by the nearby Panorama Museum, which was designed, built, and is now operated by North Korea. Inside is a 120-meter long, 13-meter high,360-degree mural featuring 45,000 people. It was painted by 63 artists over four months, after spending over a year drawing the outline. In exchange, North Korea is entitled to 100%of the proceeds for the first 10 years, followed by a 10 year 50-50 split with the Cambodian government.
Upon hearing all this, one might reasonably ask: What’s in it for them? Mansudae is sanctioned by the United Nations. Doing business with it is also likely to anger locals — why not purchase from a more reputable professional? One answer is best explained, strangely, by a nondescript fountain in Frankfurt. This relatively small $264,000 Mansudae-built sculpture is the only one built for a Western Democracy.
When asked why North Korea was awarded the contract, the commissioning museum director said it was simply a question of style. If you’re looking to buy Socialist-Realist art, no one in the world is better qualified to make it. North Korean artists have decades of experience and all of it frozen in time. The second reason is just that it’s very, very cheap. As captive citizens, its laborers are forced to accept criminally low wages. In other words: There’s plenty of demand around the world for propaganda and the Kim regime has both plenties of supply and experience. As the cost of sanctions violations increases, some countries will find the risks too high.