U.N. decapitates North Korea's statue export business

SEOUL (Reuters) - Impoverished North Korea is not known for a bustling manufacturing industry but has earned a reputation in some African states for a highly visible export - its huge socialist-style statues.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council imposed new sanctions aimed at cutting North Korea’s annual export revenue by a quarter in response to its fifth and largest nuclear test in September.

These will target exports of coal, minerals and labor - and also statues, the U.N.-drafted resolution says.

North Korea’s manufacture and export of its cast bronze statues in the socialist-realist style is only a small source of hard currency for the isolated country, comprising about $10 million a year, according to one estimate. But it has a good reputation in the field.

“Of all the things North Korea does and makes, it certainly knows how to do socialist-realist art very well,” said Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company that takes tourists to North Korea.

Since the 1970s, North Korea has built monuments and statues in about 18 African countries, according to South Korean artist Onejoon Che, who has conducted research into the statues.

He estimates North Korea has generated more than $160 million since 2000 from buildings and monuments in places like Namibia, Congo, Botswana and Senegal. By contrast, the U.N. resolution plans to cap North Korea’s coal exports at around $400 million per year.

The nearly finished monument to the African Renaissance rises above the Dakar skyline in Senegal's capital August 19, 2009. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly/File Photo

One of the first monuments North Korea donated was the 1984 Tiglachin, or “Struggle” monument to Ethiopian and Cuban soldiers in Addis Ababa. It features three Kalashnikov-wielding soldiers in front of an obelisk adorned by a single red star.

It was donated at a time when the North Korean economy, buoyed by Soviet and Chinese aid, was faring better than it is today.

Statues were also an important tool for Pyongyang when it was investing heavily in its overseas networks in order to win the backing of smaller states in a battle for diplomatic support at the United Nations.


The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and a subsequent famine that devastated the North Korea’s command economy transformed the statue-giving operation into a money-making business.

This was most evident in 2010, when North Korean workers completed Africa’s tallest statue - the 49 meter (160 feet) African Renaissance Monument, which soars over a suburb of Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

The statue cost Senegal about $27 million by some estimates, and features a muscular, topless man holding a woman with one hand and a baby aloft in the other.

North Korean statues are made by state artists at the Mansudae Art Studio, a sprawling complex in Pyongyang which designs and produces state propaganda. It was not immediately clear how the institution will be affected by the sanctions.

Flamboyant American basketball star Dennis Rodman was presented with a bust of his head made by artists at Mansudae during one of his trips to North Korea to meet leader Kim Jong Un in 2013.

He later gave a press conference in New York with the bust of his own head on a table in front of him.

Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan