Onejoon Che's film about North Korea’s relationship to African countries suggests a unique transcontinental relationship that resists easy classification.
Visual artist Onejoon Che’s documentary Mansudae Master Class (2013-2018) offers a unique insight into the relations of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) with several African countries through the lens of monuments and buildings constructed by the overseas project division of the Mansudae Art Studio, the country’s largest art studio. This architectural diplomacy has been the subject of some recent scholarship, including a 2019 monograph on nationalist monuments in Zimbabwe and Namibia, and Che’s own chapter in a recent compendium of essays on revolutionary iconography. Yet, the film provides unseen in-depth exposure to the historical and ongoing relationship.
Mansudae Overseas Projects, the international commercial division of the Mansudae Art Studio, was started in 1974 by then- president Kim Il-sung, at which time it only charged travel fees of clients. Youngwhan Kho—the former North Korean Director of Central Africa Affairs in the 1980s, who sought asylum in South Korea in 1991—explains in one of the film’s interviews that the Tiglachin Monument in Addis Ababa (inaugurated in 1984 but now in disrepair) was built free of charge because General Mengistu Haile Mariam (who brutally ruled Ethiopia between 1977 and 1991) was a pro-North Korean leader. Kho further notes that Kim Jong-Il, North Korea’s second leader, instituted fees for the projects and that they served as a major source of foreign currency.
The 40-minute film is a three-channel video installation, and features interviews, archival footage and panoramic shots of various monuments, often placed side-by-side so that the viewer can see the architectural work being discussed. Especially insightful are the interviews with locals: ranging from Samuel, a security guard at the then under-construction Independence Memorial Museum in Windhoek, Namibia, attesting to the North Koreans being “skillful” and “heavy duty” architects, to Oustaz Alioune Sall, a local imam in Dakar lambasting the Senegalese government’s investment of CFA14 billion in the nearby DPRK-built African Renaissance Monument, when the money could have been used to create local jobs “for the young who left this country by sea to go to Spain.” The shots of Dakar’s outskirts that flank the middle screen—showing the flooding that Sall talks about using the money to fix instead—give the impression that Sall is not the only Dakarois who is more than indifferent about the nearby monument.
Kho is featured prominently in the film, taking a relatively balanced stance on the Mansudae Overseas Projects. While denouncing (alongside Zimbabwean artist Owen Maseko) the DPRK’s assistance to Robert Mugabe’s military forces (which were subsequently used to quash his opposition throughout the 1980s, most notably the murder of more than 20,000 people following independence), Kho explains the motivations of the inter-Korean diplomatic war in Africa as revolving around the DPRK’s desire to amass United Nations votes to oust foreign troops (particularly American ones) from South Korea, adding that the DPRK’s channeling of huge funds to Africa resulted in North Korean children being unable to even “afford a candy bar.” Indeed, the Republic of Korea (ROK) also spearheaded similar projects in competition, and the film profiles Jintaek Rho, South Korean former owner of the ROK-built Renovation Department Store in Libreville, echoing Kho in recounting that Gabon’s allegiance—and even that of neighboring countries Cameroon and Republic of Congo—shifted from Pyongyang to Seoul, following then president Omar Bongo’s visit to Seoul and the ROK’s construction project in Libreville.
Che utilizes the three-channel format to display newspaper clippings of support for the DPRK’s desire for withdrawal of foreign troops endorsed by the governments of Mali, Namibia and Uganda. The dominant narrative of the DPRK cozying up to African dictators is partially corroborated by various testimonies lambasting the DPRK’s aid to such leaders, while more anecdotal episodes—such as former Togolese President Gnassingbé Eyadéma bursting into tears when Kim Il-sung offered him ginseng to treat a knee injury (recounted by Kho)—add fascinating details not seen in newspaper or academic treatments of this relationship.
Che captures a wide variety of reactions to and analyses of the Mansudae Overseas Projects, resisting simplistic narratives of the projects as “financial lifelines.” These range from laconic quips of disapproval like “they made [Lumumba’s statue] fat when he was not fat in reality” (Paul Bakwlufu Badibongo, deputy director of the National Museum of Kinshasa), or stronger critiques of “cheap materials and shoddy workmanship” (John Grober, an investigative journalist in Namibia), to praise like “heroic” and “has withstood the test of time” (Doreen Sibanda, the executive director of the National Museum of Zimbabwe) juxtaposed ironically with “one of these monuments that nobody goes to” (Grober)—both in reference to the DPRK-built National Heroes Acre in Harare.
The film ends with shots of the Catholic Church of Repentance and Atonement in the border city of Paju, South Korea, featuring priest Geunsun Jang, the son of Pyongyang parents who left during the war, speaking impassionedly about the need for reconciliation and forgiveness of crimes committed on both sides of the war. Jang offered the Mansudae Art Studio to make fresco paintings for peace and reconciliation, which are the first public works of art made by a North Korean in South Korea. Overall, the film provides an illuminating, nuanced portrait of a unique transcontinental relationship that resists easy classification. Indeed, in the very same film it is characterized both as a relationship “of beautiful love” (Christian Ndong Menzamet, Gabonese artist) and “an insult, more than anything” (Michael Nkomo, Zimbabwean politician). Extensive first-hand detail and assiduous analysis on topics subject to such politicization are always welcome.