Banned in the USA
See what’s made to order at North Korea’s blacklisted art factory
“That was a personal commission,” says renowned 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 greatest nuclear proliferator.
The bust sits in Ro’s workshop in Pyongyang’s sprawling Mansudae Arts Studio complex, which has become the latest target of UN sanctions seeking to curb nuclear-armed North Korea’s access to overseas hard-currency revenue.
The Security Council resolution adopted unanimously last month included a paragraph explicitly preventing UN member states from buying statuary from them. The clause was aimed at a niche but lucrative business – run from Mansudae – of exporting giant memorials mainly to Africa.
Ro, 77, is among the greatest living practitioners of such works, having been a lead artist behind some of the most iconic of Pyongyang’s monuments.
The Khan bust was commissioned after the scientist visited the city’s Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery and admired the large bronze sculptures of individuals commemorated there.
“He asked for something similar in size and shape, so I made one,” Ro says. “He really liked it and sent me a full-length photo and asked for another, so I made a two-metre-tall one.”
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 retracted his remarks.
Khan’s vanity purchase is dwarfed in scale and cost by the monumental multimillion-dollar projects Mansudae has worked on overseas – including the 50-metre-high African Renaissance Monument outside the Senegalese capital Dakar.
“We’ll send teams for between one and five years to work on these projects,” says Kim Hyon-Hui, manager of the Mansudae Overseas Project (MOP) group.
A day after the latest UN resolution was adopted, the US Treasury added the MOP to its blacklist of entities that “support North Korea’s illicit activities”.
Ultimate authority over Mansudae technically resides with propaganda chief Kim Ki-Nam. But, according to Michael Madden, editor of the website North Korea Leadership Watch, its lucrative status marks it out for special attention from supreme leader Kim Jong-Un.
“Given its prominence as a labour-service contractor and export company, realistic control over its affairs lies with Kim Jong-Un’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong,” Madden says.
A vice-director in the Propaganda and Agitation Department, Kim Yo-Jong has risen swiftly through the ranks of national leadership to assume what analysts see as an influential position.
Last week she was added to the US Treasury Department’s blacklist in response to Pyongyang’s “serious” censorship activities.
According to Pier Luigi Cecioni, who has operated 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,” says Cecioni, who sells paintings by Mansudae artists through an English-language website he manages.
Kim declined to provide any details of MOP earnings, and estimates of how much hard currency the company brings in range from $5 million to $13 million a year.
“In terms of revenue earnings, Mansudae is a fairly small player,” says Madden. “Because of its importance and prominence in the country’s political culture – not to mention its ‘supreme’ patronage – Mansudae is not hard pressed to earn more.”
Mansudae’s socialist-realist style has proved popular with revolutionary movements-turned-governments looking to create a post-colonial memorial landscape, and it provides skilled workers at a very competitive price.
Close to 4,000 people work at Mansudae, a complex the size of a small village with hundreds of studios housed inside cavernous cement buildings.
It was founded in 1959 by Kim Il-Sung and has a giant statue of the founding president and his son and successor Kim Jong-Il – both on horseback – inside the main entrance gates.
The studios employ 700 artists who are ranked in a clearly defined hierarchy. At the top sit 30 designated “People’s Artists”, like Ro Ik-Hwa. who enjoy numerous benefits including foreign travel and individual studios inside the complex.
The North’s art scene is tightly controlled – there is no abstract art, which is regarded as anti-revolutionary – and even the top artists earn monthly salaries that bear little relation to the sale value of their work.
“We produce pieces that are demanded by revolution, that move people to revolution,” says Hong Chun-Ong, 76, also ranked a People’s Artist and a 40-year veteran of Mansudae who specialises in woodcuts and propaganda images.