NEW YORK, May 1 (UPI) -- When North Korea set out to forge diplomatic ties in newly independent African countries in the 1970s, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung dispatched some unlikely envoys: artists, sculptors and construction engineers. Their mission: to build public art – specifically massive bronze statues for which North Korea's Mansudae art studio was known – in Senegal, Zimbabwe, Namibia and the Congo.
The works initially were built for free as a goodwill gesture – but they have since evolved into a source of foreign currency for a regime trying to circumvent economic sanctions over its nuclear weapons program. South Korean filmmaker Onejoon Che has produced a documentary on North Korea's unusual legacy in Africa. His film, Mansudae Master Class, is screening through May 21 at the New Museum in New York.
In a recent interview with UPI, Che said he was working and living in France in 2010 when he heard about an impressive bronze sculpture depicting an African man, woman and child being completed in Dakar, Senegal. The 160-foot-tall African Renaissance Monument, it turns out, was built with the input of North Korean engineers. It also bears a striking resemblance to statues glorifying the communist revolution that can be found in North Korea. North Korea remains exceptionally isolated from international exchange, but four decades of cooperation with African governments shed light on its past adventures in diplomacy, and even military training, on behalf of newly formed African governments.
Many of the structures came out of the cold war era, when Seoul and Pyongyang were locked in competition for friendly relations among newly independent states in Asia and Africa. Pyongyang's Mansudae Art Studio, established in 1959, constructed more than 38,000 statues and 170,000 monuments across North Korea. The studio's expertise in monument building became known as North Korea forged diplomatic relations. Its foreign division still brings in millions in revenue for the regime. In France, Che said local news derided the monument in the former French colony, partly because of the North Korean involvement. By 2013, Che had begun production on his documentary, visiting eight African countries and interviewing Africans about their encounters with North Korea's corps of engineers and artists. "The general [African] population had no contact with North Koreans," Che said. But Africa's emergent leaders did, often with North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un. The early stages of Kim Il Sung's outreach were characterized by friendly exchanges. According to Ko Young-hwan, a high-profile defector and former North Korean diplomat, Kim provided former Togo President Gnassingbé Eyadéma with medical treatment in Pyongyang after Eyadéma was injured in a 1974 plane crash. Moved by Kim's largesse, Eyadéma at one point burst into tears of gratitude, Ko tells Che in the film. Kim Il Sung also told the Togolese leader that he would send North Korean engineers to Togo to build a Korean ginseng or herbal sauna for Eyadéma. In the course of filming, Che met with people whose evaluation of North Koreans ranged from admiration to stern disapproval. Some had met North Koreans directly. Others spoke to him of the mixed feelings they had for the reclusive country they associate with human rights abuses and a brutal regime that spends more money on Kim family idolization than on providing food to its impoverished population. In Namibia, a country once occupied by Germany then subsequently by neighboring South Africa, Che interviewed a war veteran who said North Koreans trained people like himself in "karate" in the 1970s, when the People's Liberation Army of Namibia, a guerrilla group, was entrenched in an armed struggle for independence. "We will never forget you people," he told Che on camera. Members of the armed wing of the South West Africa People's Organization were sent to Pyongyang to receive military training. When Che probed Namibian veterans off-camera, they said their North Korean instructors were "strong, fast, scary and intimidating." South Africa eventually agreed to end its occupation in 1988, and Namibia and North Korea maintain close relations to this day. That relationship was the driving force behind several North Korean construction projects in the African state, including Heroes' Acre, a war memorial, and the State House of Namibia, with the latter completed in 2008 at a cost of at least $34.2 million. But in Zimbabwe, the legacy of North Korea's impact was tangled with Pyongyang's involvement in a civilian massacre. While North Korean forces were not directly involved in the crackdown that left 20,000 dead between 1983 and 1987, they were responsible for training the Zimbabwean Fifth Brigade in 1981 that would later go on to crush resistance against Robert Mugabe. Charles Armstrong, professor of Korean studies at Columbia University, told UPI that North Korea's apparent success in rapid industrialization and "self-reliant" development appealed to newly independent states in Africa and the Middle East. That, and the race against Seoul for diplomatic ties around the world, compelled moments of deep North Korean involvement in internal African affairs. "Many post-colonial states were particularly interested in North Korea's military assistance, and North Korea supplied Zimbabwe with training, weapons, and military equipment in the early days of the Mugabe regime," Armstrong said in an e-mail. "These were used to consolidate [Mugabe's] rule and especially to put down the rebellion in Matabeleland, quite violently as it turned out." Though much less controversial, North Korea's 2010 involvement in the construction of the African Renaissance Monument in the Muslim-majority state of Senegal ignited opposition. Muslims decried the sculpture of a bare-breasted African mother that is part of the trio of figures. The monument, which includes a viewing deck at the crown of the male figure's head, also cost Senegal $12 million, which was approved by then-President Abdoulaye Wade. Locals Che interviewed criticized the monument, saying that the money could have been allocated to better use in Dakar, with its endemic poverty and susceptibility to seasonal flooding. But Che told UPI the dramatic monument was lauded by Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby Atepa, then dubbed the "official artist of the Sun King," a reference to Wade, who stepped down in 2012 following allegations of corruption. In Che's film, Atepa summarizes why Pyongyang was selected to make his artistic vision a reality. "Big bronze sculptures -- only North Koreans know how to do it," Atepa says. "They are the best."