Made to Order in Blacklisted North Korean Art Factory



Mansudae’s socialist-realist style has proven popular with revolutionary movements turned governments seeking to create a post-colonial commemorative landscape – and he provides skilled workers at a very competitive price.

Made to Order at Blacklisted North Korea Art Factory

  • By Giles Hewitt / AFP, PYONGYANG

“It was a personal commission,” said famous North Korean sculptor Ro Ik-hwa, pointing to a bust of AQ Khan, the Pakistani scientist denounced by the United States as the world’s largest nuclear proliferator.

The bust is in Ro’s studio at Pyongyang’s sprawling Mansudae Arts Studio complex, which has become the latest target of UN sanctions aimed at restricting North Korea’s nuclear access to foreign currency earnings.

The Security Council resolution unanimously adopted in early December included a paragraph explicitly prohibiting UN member states from purchasing statues from them. The clause targeted a niche but lucrative business – run from Mansudae – of exporting giant memorials primarily to Africa. Ro, 77, is one of the foremost living practitioners of these works, having been one of the main artists behind some of Pyongyang’s most iconic landmarks.

Photo: AFP

Khan’s bust was commissioned after the Pakistani scientist visited the city’s Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery and admired the large bronze sculptures of individuals who are commemorated there.

“He asked for something similar in size and shape … so I made one,” Ro told AFP during a recent visit to his studio.

“After seeing it, he really liked it and sent me a full-length photo and asked for another one, so I made one two meters high,” he said. declared.

Photo: AFP

Revered by many Pakistanis as the father of the country’s atomic bomb, Khan confessed in 2004 to sending nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea, although he later reconsidered his comments.

As US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton described him as “possibly the world’s worst proliferator”.


Khan’s vanity purchase is eclipsed in scale and cost by the monumental multi-million dollar projects Mansudae worked on overseas – including the 50m tall African Renaissance monument, completed in 2010 outside the Senegalese capital Dakar.

“We will be sending teams for one to five years to work on these projects,” said Kim Hyon-hui, group director of the Mansudae Overseas Project (MOP).

A day after the adoption of the latest UN resolution, the US Treasury added the MOP to its blacklist of entities that “support North Korea’s illicit activities.”

Ultimate authority over Mansudae technically rests with propaganda chief Kim Ki-nam. But according to Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch website, his lucrative status deserves special attention from Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

“Given its importance as a labor service provider and exporting company, realistic control of its affairs rests with Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong,” Madden told AFP. Deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, Kim Yo-jong quickly rose through the ranks of the North Korean leadership to assume what analysts see as an influential position.

Last week, it was added to the US Treasury Department’s blacklist in response to “serious” censorship activities in Pyongyang.

According to Pier Luigi Cecioni, who has served as Mansudae’s official sales representative in the West for the past decade, Mansudae and the MOP enjoy an extremely high degree of autonomy.


“They pretty much exist at the level of a ministry,” said Cecioni who sells paintings by Mansudae artists through an English-language website he manages.

African governments have been Mansudae’s main market for large-scale projects, with statues, monuments and buildings commissioned by countries including Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Namibia, Senegal and Zimbabwe .

Kim declined to provide details of MOP’s revenue, and estimates of how much hard currency the company brings in range from $ 5 million to $ 13 million per year.

“In terms of income, Mansudae is a pretty small actor,” Madden said.

“Because of his importance and importance in the political culture of the country – not to mention his ‘supreme’ patronage – Mansudae has no trouble earning more,” he added.

Mansudae’s socialist-realist style has proven popular with revolutionary movements turned governments seeking to create a post-colonial commemorative landscape, and he provides skilled workers at a very competitive price.

“Only North Koreans could build my statue … I had no money,” then Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade told the Wall Street Journal when the African Renaissance monument was completed for an announced cost of $ 27 million.

Almost 4,000 people work in Mansudae, a large complex the size of a small village with hundreds of studios housed in cavernous cement buildings.

It was founded in 1959 by Kim Il-sung and a giant statue of the founding president and his son and successor Kim Jong-il – both on horseback – greets visitors inside the main entrance gates.


The studios employ 700 artists who are classified in a clearly defined hierarchy. At the top of the pile are around 30 “people’s artists” – like Ro Ik-hwa – who enjoy a number of perks, including trips abroad and individual studios inside the complex.

The northern art scene is tightly controlled – there is no abstract art, which is considered anti-revolutionary by the authorities – and even the best artists work for monthly salaries that bear little relation to the value of sale of their work.

“We produce parts that are demanded by the revolution … that push people to revolution,” said Hong Chun-ong, 76 – also classified as a “people’s artist” and a 40-year-old Mansudae veteran who specializes in logging and propaganda. images.

Hong, described by MOP director Kim as one of the country’s “top five” artists, is one of the few to have traveled abroad – participating in promotional exhibitions in Asia, as well as in some European countries. like the Netherlands.

“We sell artwork at our shows, but also produce on demand,” Kim said.

“Those presented in the exhibitions are more expensive because they are not reproduced,” she added.

Provenance can be problematic for those unfamiliar with the peculiarities of the North Korean art market.

Featured artists often produce multiple copies of their most popular works, which are also copied by other artists, so that more people can see them.

At the same time, Mansudae produces many works specially designed for foreign consumption.


This makes it extremely difficult to find pieces of high quality, with a clear provenance and with real roots in the fabric of North Korean society.

Prices vary wildly, with large works by top popular artists going for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“I don’t deal with a lot of expensive works like this,” Cecioni said.

“The artists involved are not well known here, so it’s hard to find buyers in this price range. “

Mansudae’s only foreign representation is the gallery it operates in Beijing’s 798 Art District.

North Korean art remains an extremely niche market, and China is one of the few places where works are bought and sold by collectors with some regularity.

It is possible to purchase directly from the Pyongyang complex, but financial penalties make this difficult.

“You can’t transfer money to North Korea, so if you can’t go in person, there aren’t a lot of options,” Cecioni said.

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