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North Korea’s “Largest” Export Product

We are all too aware of the existence of North Korea, reigned by the infamous Kim dynasty. The communist dictatorship has been closed off from most of the world since the 1960s, leading to its nickname the “Hermit Kingdom.” After North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in October 2006, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1718. It imposed economic sanctions on the country, explicitly imposing a ban on “the exportation of large-scale arms-related goods, technology, services and luxury goods.” It also banned the export of North Korean heavy arms. 

Already before these sanctions, North Korea’s direct neighbours China and South Korea accounted for over half of the country’s trade. It is generally assumed that the UN’s sanctions impacted their specific area and increased the risk premium on all forms of economic engagement with the hermit kingdom. There already were many barriers in place regarding trade with the country and the sanctions probably prevented trade that would otherwise have developed. 

Even though the sanctions against the Hermit Kingdom continue and its two largest trade partners are its direct neighbours, there is one curious product that isn’t just exported worldwide but is its “largest” export product. Statues.

North Korean Statues


Exporting statues sculpted in the North Korean socialist-realism fashion is a surprising way the country has accumulated foreign currency. One of the most significant examples of this export is Le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine or the African Renaissance Monument in English. It is a colossal bronze sculpture completed in April 2010, reaching 52 meters in height, towering over the suburbs of Dakar, Senegal. The monument shows a family: a man carrying his child on his arm and holding his wife by the waist. All three are facing the sky, representing “an Africa emerging towards the light.”

The statue was constructed by Mansudae Overseas Projects, a North Korean company. It reportedly cost 27 million dollars. But Senegal didn’t pay in cash. Instead, it is said they gave the North Koreans land. They in turn immediately sold that land. 

In September 2016, North Korea conducted another illegal nuclear test, the second one that year. As a result, in December, statues unexpectedly popped up on the tightened list of trade sanctions. Banning the export of statues was a symbolic measure because in total it earned North Korea around 15 million dollars annually. On that same list were significant cutbacks in coal and minerals. North Korea’s coal exports earned the country several billion dollars annually, so a considerably more significant portion than statues. 

But still, symbolic politics or not, it was a significant blow to North Korea’s pride and visibility around the world. Mansudae Art Studio has been operating since 1959 and with its size of 22 football fields is one of the largest centres of art production around the entire globe. As of today, the studio built over 38.000 statues to be placed all around the country. Not too surprising, considering there’s quite a strong domestic cult of personality. 

The studio sculpted and built the enormous bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. You know, those famous giant statues greeting tourists that are allowed into the country on rare occasions.

Many of the studio’s artists are talents recruited from the prestigious Pyongyang University. In total, they employ approximately 4000 artists. Their Overseas Projects branch has constructed statues (and a few museums) in 18 African and Asian countries, netting them a total revenue of around 160 million USD. 

Depending on which sources you read, the firm has been exporting art since the 1970s or 1980s. Initially, it wasn’t necessarily a solid business model to the North Koreans though. It began as a way to offer diplomatic gifts to socialist or non-aligned countries. Until 2000, the Kim-regime generally gifted the statues for free, but slowly, a market began developing around them. Countries mainly made use of the services because of the incredibly low prices.

The North Korean socialist-realism style appeared to be rather fitting to the symbols of progress and advancement most African nations had been looking for. For example, in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, a giant statue of its first president, Samora Machel, watches over the cities ‘Independence Square.’ 

For his 90th birthday, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe ordered two massive bronze sculptures which cost approximately 5 million USD. After the 2017 coup ousting him from power, I highly doubt those statues will ever see the light of day. They are probably locked away somewhere in storage. 

Another example is Heroes’ Acre. It is a war memorial located in the uninhabited Namibian hills. Besides the symmetric polygon, there is also an 11-meter tall bronze statue of the Unknown Soldier, built by the North Korean studio. The soldier overlooks the hills and vast lands and is only bested in size by the giant obelisk towering over him. The memorial commemorates the country’s fight for independence. 

Heroes’ Acre

UN observers criticised the Overseas Projects branch. They claimed that the studio used the guise of an art factory but instead aided military projects within the country. In July Namibia officially terminated all contracts and cooperation with the studio. Other issues arose as well. The Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade commissioned the African Rennaisance Monument, but during its construction, he complained the statues appeared to be too Asian. He ordered them to be remodelled. Machel’s statue in Maputo too isn’t considered a realistic portrait by some, and Laurent Kabila’s statue in Kinshasha, Congo, is often critiqued because it appears the statue wears a traditionally North Korean outfit often worn by the Kim dynasty. 

Mansudae Art Studio

Even though there is an official export ban on statues, that doesn’t mean North Korea necessarily doesn’t export art anymore. On Mansudae’s website, hosted by an Italian firm, it was still possible to order oil paintings, hand-painted propaganda posters and small sculptures when I created this video. According to its service policy, all works of art should be delivered to your home address within two weeks. The official Mansudae website has been taken offline but it has relocated under a different address. The website states art is shipped within 7 days of payment, from Italy. 

After a bit of digging, it appears Pier Luigi Cecioni runs the website. The Italian is the sole representative of Mansudae to the outside world. Cecioni quite literally is North Korea’s art dealer, which he became by chance due to travelling through the country with his classical music orchestra and simply asking to look at some art. Nobody in the west had heard of Mansudae Art Studio, but as we’ve seen, it’s a top contender for the largest art studio in the world. Besides selling art from the studio, he also organises exhibitions in art gallery’s and even has North Korean artists visiting him in Italy.