Today, North Korea threatens to “burn Manhattan to ashes.” Yesterday, Kim Jong-un decided to ramp-up the country’s nuclear capacities. Tomorrow, the hermit kingdom will test miniature warheads. But while most of the world focuses on these imminent threats, North Korea is discreetly expanding its reach by other means: art. North Korea’s art army has been building ideologically influenced statues and monuments in places like Africa, Asia, the Middle East, even Germany.
North Korea’s Mansudae Art Studio is thought to be one of the biggest art production studios in the world. Founded by Kim Il-sung in 1959, the state-run institution is known for its over-the-top Soviet-style artwork. Its work ranges from oil painting, to ceramics, to sculpture, to woodcutting, and even propaganda. Best known for having built every statue and art on display in North Korea, Mansudae artists are the only ones considered prominent enough to be allowed to paint the Kim dynasty.
Mansudae’s 30-acre warehouse, big enough to contain 22 football fields, is home to over 1,000 of North Korea’s best artists. However, no matter how talented they are, they have no artistic freedom. Their education and the themes they are allowed to paint are strictly controlled and restricted by party ideology. Their art is supposed to represent North Korean life in a positive light and inspire patriotic feelings in its viewers. Their “socialist realism” has become the DPRK’s artistic trademark.
This North Korean fine-art propaganda, however, has not been contained to the hermit kingdom. In the 1970s, Mansudae created its international division, the Mansudae Overseas Project Group, to cement relations with the world’s socialist countries. Since the 2000s Mansudae’s foreign projects have exponentially grown. At the request of foreign governments, this branch of Mansudae produces nationalist propaganda in the grandiose Stalinist-North Korean style. Found in over 18 nations, most of these pieces exalt dictators and revolutionary causes, provoking controversy wherever they are placed.
One of Mansudae’s most relevant commissions is Senegal’s African Renaissance Monument, a 160-foot tall, $27 million bronze statue symbolizing the end of colonialism. Taller than the statue of liberty, this monument creates a striking contrast next to impoverished huts. In Namibia, Mansudae built a $60 million war memorial to foster a spirit of patriotism and nationalism. In Ethiopia, it built a monument to exalt communist ideals. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they built a 25-foot tall statue of former dictator Laurent Kabila. In Syria, Masudae artists painted murals commemorating Hefez al-Assad’s “victory” over Israel. And the list goes on.
The studio’s largest cultural export and its crown jewel is the recently opened museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Located to one of the most important archeological sites in South-East Asia, Angkor Wat, the Angkor Panorama museum cost $24 million and covers over 19,700 square feet.
The museum’s main showpiece is a 360-degree mural painted by Mansudae. Covering nearly four basketball courts, the mural depicts the Angkor era from 802 to 1431. The museum also has a 204-seat theater, as well as 3D maps of the area and models of the temples. The museum is managed and staffed only by North Koreans, ensuring that for the first 10 years all of the museum’s revenues will go back to the isolated nation.
North Korea’s disastrous economic policies and erratic foreign policy continue to damage its economy and invite foreign sanctions. The country struggles to engage in foreign trade and get foreign currency. Mansudae provides some relief in both areas: the regime’s statue-building brings in some business and foreign cash, and the regime will get to keep all of the profits from ticket sales and souvenirs from the museum in Cambodia.
Over the last decade, Mansudae’s overseas division has brought over $160 million to the isolated North Korean regime. These profits, however, go straight to the party’s slush funds held in private accounts in China, Macau, and Switzerland, funding the regime and its activities. Sadly, with Mansudae, we see art, which is supposed to enliven the souls of human beings, turned to the perverse end of supporting the horrific oppression of them instead.