Mansudae Master Class: The Monumental Gifts from North Korea

Since 1960, the North Korean government has constructed many buildings, monuments, and statues in Africa. These architectural structures have been covered by the international press since 2010, when the African Renaissance Monument was inaugurated in Senegal. I began intensive research on the subject in 2012 for a documentary film that is focused, in particular, on the buildings made by the North Koreans, free of charge, in Africa in the 1970s.

For this project, I interviewed African journalists, museum directors, architects, and others interested in North Korean arts and architecture. None of the people I spoke to know exactly why the North Koreans offered their help at no cost. They assume, however, that among the main reasons is the friendship between African leaders/dictators and Kim Il-sung, the first North Korean leader/dictator. To date, the North Koreans have constructed buildings, monuments, and statues in eighteen African countries, roughly half of which received the free-construction benefits offered by Kim Il-sung. Behind this North Korean diplomatic strategy lies a competition between North and South Korea, something not generally known in either the Western world or Africa. Just after the armistice at the end of the Korean War in 1953, problems related to the military demarcation line between North and South Korea and to the stationing of the U.S. Army in South Korea were addressed but not resolved by the United Nations—and then magnified by the Cold War and the larger world conflict between democracy and communism. It is within this context, as the newly independent African nations joined the United Nations in the 1960s, that North Korea first sought to secure African support.

In addition, North Korea strove to join the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of which many African countries were members.(1) The numerous architectural structures built across Africa in the 1970s—including the Youth and Children’s Palace in Sudan, the stadium in Tanzania (called the Kim Il-sung Stadium), the presidential palace in Madagascar, and the water channels for agriculture in Ethiopia—are regarded as examples of North Korea’s diplomatic efforts. The situation has, ironically, changed since the 2000s. As the economic situation in North Korea grew dramatically worse in the mid-1990s, the country’s Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies began to dispatch artists and laborers to Africa.(2) During long-term stays in Namibia, Senegal, Botswana, Congo, etc., members of this organization have earned foreign currency by constructing large-scale statues and buildings. In fact, these structures reflect the well-made forms of the Socialist Realism style; for example, the new Independence Memorial Museum, opened in Namibia in 2014, features the strong vertical lines and symmetrical surface characteristic of the Socialist Realism style, as does the Youth Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea. The large African Renaissance Monument showcases North Korea’s current bronze-casting technique, which has been used and developed to make more than twenty thousand statues of Kim Il-sung. However, the buildings and the monuments made by the North Koreans inevitably become subject to debate for political and social reasons: because they sometimes honor the dictatorships of African nations, they arouse suspicion of hidden connections between North Korea and Africa—the latter of which possesses the main materials necessary for nuclear development. Architectural structures can be seen as controversial in any city. If perceived as overtly social and/or political, they can become subject to criticism and gossip.

Today, North Korea is ridiculed, yet at the same time, it has captured the world’s attention. Human rights violations and the political situation in North Korea have clouded how these structures are viewed. In this context, North Korean architecture, monuments, and statues in Africa could serve as a portal to greater understanding, for they represent not just Africa, but also the history of the Korean peninsula and the current state of North Korea. 1) In Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, there was a meeting among newly independent nations of Asia and Africa for anti-imperialism, independence, and non-alliance against more powerful Western nations. The first Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit Conference took place in Belgrade in 1961; after the second meeting, African countries made up the majority of the group. 2) Known as the cradle of revolutionary art, the Mansudae Art Studio is a North Korean arts organization, established in 1959. Its members have built about 3,800 statues and 179 monuments throughout North Korea. Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies and its affiliated departments are in charge of buildings, monuments, and other architectural projects overseas. This department is known for earning substantial foreign currency since 2000.

African Renaissance

African Renaissance Monument, built 2010, Dakar, Senegal 2013.
Digital C-print, 20 1/16 x 26 in. (66 x 51 cm). From a series of photographs commissioned in 2013 by Musée du quai Branly, Paris
Tourist from Senegal
Tourist from Burkina Faso
Tourists from Burkina Faso
Tourists from Democratic Republic of the Congo
Tourists from Mauritania
Tourists from Ethiopia
Tourists from Gabon
Interview with Pierre Goudiaby Atepa
Excerpt from the feature-length documentary film Black Monument, due to be completed in 2016.
For more information about Atepa, see here.

Nkomo Statue

Demolished site of statue of Joshua Nkomo (former vice president of Zimbabwe), Bulawayo, Zimbabwe 2013. Digital C-print, 23 5/8 x 33 7/8 in. (60 x 86 cm). From a series of photographs commissioned in 2013 by Musée du quai Branly, Paris

Statue of Joshua Nkomo (former vice president of Zimbabwe), Bulawayo, Zimbabwe 2015. Digital C-print, 23 5/8 x 33 7/8 in. (60 x 86 cm)

Bulawayo citizens in front of Nkomo statue
Bulawayo citizens in front of Nkomo statue

Bulawayo citizens in front of Nkomo statue
Bulawayo citizens in front of Nkomo statue
Statue of Joshua Nkomo, built 2011 and installed in the backyard of the Natural History Museum, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

2013. Digital C-print, 23 5/8 x 33 7/8 in. (60 x 86 cm). From a series of photographs commissioned in 2013 by Musée du quai Branly, Paris
Interview with Sibangilizwe Nkomo
Still from Mansudae Master Class . 2015. Three-channel HD video: color, 40 minutes, 30 seconds

The Story of My Life, autobiography of Joshua Nkomo. First published 1984 in London by Methuen Publishing Ltd.; reprinted June 2012 in Zimbabwe by R&S Litho

Archives from North Korea and Africa

Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Newspaper)

(Above) I support the people’s stance in North Korea demanding withdrawal of foreign armed forces from South Korea. Emphasized by president of Uganda. (Below) Korea cannot be divided in two, always to be one. Emphasized by president of Republic of Equatorial Guinea. Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Newspaper), May 21, 1973
Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Newspaper)

(Left) The tenth-anniversary celebration of Mozambique’s independence, Kim Il-sung, general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, sent to Samora Moisés Machel, leader of the National Liberation Front. Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Newspaper), September 25, 1974. (Right) The fourteenth-anniversary celebration of the proclamation of Republic of Mali, Kim Il-sung, supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, sent to Moussa Traoré, chairman of the Military Committee for National Liberation. Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Newspaper), September 21, 1974
Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Newspaper)

The United Nations Command must disband and withdraw every foreign armed force from South Korea. Speech by the leader of Mali. Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Newspaper), December 1, 1975
Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Newspaper)

Dear Great Leader, Kim Il-sung gave a grand banquet in honor of the president of Togo Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s visit to North Korea. Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Newspaper), September 11, 1973

Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Newspaper)

I support the fight of the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for peaceful unification without foreign power. Speech of Comrade Sam Nujoma at the banquet. Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Newspaper), November 22, 1975
President Kim Il-sung meeting foreign heads of state, reedited by Onejoon Che
Kim Il-sung. Sur le travail de l’union des femmes (On the Work of the Women’s Union) Pyongyang, 1971. Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyoungyang, Korea. Printed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Kim Il-sung. Les Taches des Communistes Coréens (The Tasks of Korean Communists) Pyongyang, 1972. Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyoungyang, Korea. Printed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
A Great Personality Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyoungyang, Korea, 1984. Written by the editorial board of Foreign Languages Publishing House. Printed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. No. 491819
Kim Il-sung. Réponses aux questions posées par le secrétaire général et d’amitié Peruvian-Coréen (Answers to the questions asked by the general secretary of the Cultural Institute for Peruvian-Korean Friendship) Pyongyang, 1974. Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyoungyang, Korea. Printed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Kim Jong Il. The Leader of the Youth Movement Pyongyang: Kum Song Youth Publishing House, 1988. Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyoungyang, Korea. Printed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Onejoon Che. Archival footage from Mansudae Master Class. 2015

Daily Production Report (21 June 2010–3 February 2011)

Found in garbage in February 2013. The third group consists of eighteen North Korean workers.
Daily Production Report (3 February 2011–2 June 2011)

Found in garbage in February 2013. The third group consists of eighteen North Korean workers.
Attendance book of Independence Hall, made by a North Korean worker in July 2010

Found in garbage in February 2013. Worker’s names, in order they are listed: Yongsuk Son, Heebok Kim, Namchul Kim, Gwangmyeong Kim, Sngwon Song, Youngil Kim, Jongsik Choi, Kyoungsung Kho, Chunmoung Kim, Hyun chul Park, Dongsik Kim, Daehong Cha, Yongchul Kim, Chunsam Kim, Ilsang Lee, Sunghuk Lee, Youngmin Kim, Chulnam Park

Blueprint of Independence Hall, made by Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies, Windhoek, Namibia

Found in garbage in February 2013
Auser Baalu Girma. Call of the Red Star

Book on Communism, produced for Ethiopians
Assefa Endeshaw. Sacrifice Life for Country (History of Red Flag)

c. 1980s. Book on Communism, produced for Ethiopians
Catalogue of Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies.

Sculptor Songsu Choe. Interior page from catalogue of Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies.
Painter Hyoksin Choe. Interior page from catalogue of Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies.
Sculptor Inmo Sin. Interior page from catalogue of Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies.
Sculptor Younggwang Lee. Interior page from catalogue of Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies.
Cover of booklet for Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies
Interior page of booklet for Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies
Interior page of booklet for Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies
Interior page of booklet for Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies
Interior page of booklet for Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies
Interior page of booklet for Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies
Postcard (front)

Monument to Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War. Korea pictorial, Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 1993
Postcard (back)

Monument to Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War. Korea pictorial, Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 1993
Archive installation of Mansudae Master Class

2014. Ghosts, Spies, and Grandmothers , curated by artist Park Chan-kyong, SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul

More in this theme

Subscribe to our newsletter

Related Content

Art for Liberation’s Sake: The Activist Art of Gavin Jantjes

In his screen-prints of the 1970s, South African artist Gavin Jantjes sought to convey the urgency and interconnectedness of global Black liberation movements. As an art student in exile in Hamburg, Jantjes dedicated his early practice to raising awareness of the brutal injustices of the apartheid system in South Africa, engaging with anti-colonial struggles waged by African and African-Diasporic populations around the world. In this essay, art historian Allison K. Young looks at a selection of early abstracted, dynamic compositions which evidence his belief in the connection between art and resistance, and his commitment to solidarity between localized struggles across the diaspora.

Breaking Down Binaries, Feeling Contradictions: Thoughts on Some of the Conundrums Concerning Art’s Ecologies

Sarah Lookofsky, former Associate Director of the International program at MoMA, rumintes on the presentations and conversations held on Day One of the 2022 C-MAP seminar. Lookofsky calls out the contradictions of art’s embeddedness with various ecologies, rehearsing her own writing-thinking as produced by a “dumpy dialectic.”