All official portraiture of North Korea’s reigning Kim family is made by Mansudae Art Studio.

Pyongyang, North Korea

If you want to paint a picture of Kim Jong-un, you’ll need to get a certificate. Images of North Korea’s ruling dynasty – known as “number-one works” – may only be painted by North Koreans certified as “number-one artists,” almost all of whom have followed the same, narrow route to the top. At nine, they will have entered specialist art schools to learn the basics of depicting mountains, martyrs, spring blossoms and the struggle of the Korean people, and at 15 they will have  joined the 150 best art students in the country at Pyongyang University of Fine Art. After at least five more years of study, they will have joined the 1,000 elite artists at the huge Mansudae Art Studio in the center of the capital, where 80 percent of North Korea’s artwork is produced.

If you want to paint a picture of Kim Jong-un, you’ll need to get a certificate.

A typical Mansudae artist produces 30 artworks a year, working four days a week. Fridays are for community service, such as sweeping city streets, Saturdays are reserved for political study, and Sundays are free. Once a week, their work is criticized by their colleagues, and every year each artist must produce a special piece in honor of the regime. Mansudae produces all of North Korea’s official art, from 20-meter-high bronze statues of Eternal President Kim Il-sung to heroic mosaics in the Pyongyang subway. The state is a major client – one reputable 2007 study estimated that “Kim-family deification” through art made up nearly 40 percent of North Korea’s “visible budget” – and public commissions account for about half of Mansudae’s vast output of sculpture, painting, embroidery, mosaic and architecture. There is little domestic demand for the rest of the studio’s output, however, beyond the portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il that must be hung in every living room and office. There are almost no galleries outside of Pyongyang.

But where the domestic art market falls short, foreign sales are thriving. Mansudae has a branch dedicated to making art works for clients abroad, and demand is growing, especially in China, for first-class North Korean ink painting, ceramics, and “jewel painting” using ground gems. In 2008, Mansudae had its first venture into Europe, too. Gallery owner Pier Luigi Cecioni organized an exhibition in Genoa, Italy, and recalls taking the artists to see some contemporary art. “They didn’t like it,” he says. “They laughed.” North Korea teaches a form of Socialist Realism, and demands that all art be figurative and support the state. “If the people who see a picture cannot grasp its meaning,” wrote late supreme leader Kim Jong-il in his Treatise on Art, “no matter how talented its creator, they cannot say it is a good picture.”



Diy-korea[1] Red Begonias

Kimjongilia is a breed of red begonia dedicated to former leader Kim Jong-il by a Japanese botanist in 1988, and designed to bloom on Kim’s birthday. Kimilsungia is a purple orchid representing his father, Kim il-Sung.

[2] Horses

Horses refer to chollima, a mythical winged horse that symbolizes the “Chollima Movement” – a 1957 five-year industrial plan so disastrous that the government ceased publishing economic statistics from the mid-1960s on.

Diy-korea2[3] The Sun

Born on the Day of the Sun and buried in the Palace of the Sun, North Korea’s founder Kim il-Sung is the Eternal Sun of Mankind. In DPRK art, sunbeams signify that he is watching you.

[4] Handguns


Referencing either the red-cloth-wrapped twin pistols gifted to Kim il-Sung as a schoolboy or the revolver earned by 10-year-old Kim Jong-il on the battlefield, handguns are symbols of seon’gun – North Korea’s “military first” economic policy.


mansudae african monuments

[1] Three Dikgosi Monument (2005)

When statues of three national heroes were delivered to Botswanan capital Gaborone by Mansudae Overseas Projects in 2005, Botswanan artists complained that the over five-meter-tall dikgosi (tribal leaders) did not look African at all.

[2] Joshua Nkomo Statue (2010)

Thousands of supporters of Zimbabwean politician Joshua Nkomo were killed by North Korea-trained soldiers in the 1980s. When a three-meter Mansudae statue of Nkomo was unveiled in Bulawayo in 2010, it had to be removed within hours

[3] Samora Machel Statue (2011)

Samora Machel, Mozambique’s first president, died in a mysterious plane crash in 1986. Twenty-five years later, Mansudae’s foreign branch immortalized his memory in five tonnes of bronze, nine meters high, in the capital, Maputo.

[4] Agostinho Neto Statue (2012)

While Mansudae was producing a statue of the first president of Angola, Agostinho Neto, Neto’s wife and daughter traveled to North Korea to oversee production. The child clutching the president’s leg was their idea.

Diymansudae2[5] Tiglachin Monument (1974)

The statue in Addis Ababa’s Tiglachin monument was a North Korean gift to the Derg, Ethiopia’s Communist regime from 1974 to 1987, now notorious for the mass executions and abuses carried out under its rule.

[6] African Renaissance (2010)

The 49-meter-tall African Renaissance monument outside Dakar, Senegal, is the largest statue in Africa. Built to commemorate Senegal’s independence from France, it was designed by French-based artist Virgil Magherusan, then built by Mansudae without his permission.

[7] The Unknown Soldier (2002)

Mansudae Overseas Projects is behind many Namibian public buildings and statues, including Windhoek’s eightmeter- tall Unknown Soldier. It represents Namibians killed in the country’s 22-year war of independence from 1966 to 1988.

[8] Monument to Laurent Kabila (2002)

The five-meter-tall Mansudae monument in Kinshasa sets Laurent Kabila’s head on the body of Kim Jong-il. President Kabila ruled the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Second Congo War, which took 5.4 million lives.


From the pages of COLORS #87 - Looking at Art.