Roman Mars [00:00:01] Who doesn’t want to do right by the planet? Well, one of the easiest ways is to use paper. And another is to choose products that come in paper-based packaging. It’s that simple because paper comes from trees. And here in the U.S., private forest owners carefully maintain healthy forests and their habitats to provide our essential paper products. So, choose paper, and help keep America’s forests thriving. Learn more at howlifeunfolds.com. This message is brought to you by Discover. Did you know you could reduce the number of unwanted calls and emails with online privacy protection, the latest innovation from Discover. Discover will help regularly remove your personal info–like your name and address–from ten popular people search websites that could sell your data. And they’ll do it for free. Activate in a Discover app. See terms and learn more at discover.com/onlineprivacyprotection. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. In downtown Windhoek, Namibia–at the intersection of Fidel Castro Street and Robert Mugabe Avenue–there is an imposing gold building with an affectionate nickname.
Hildegard [00:01:18] I call it “The Coffee Machine.”.
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:01:20] They call it “The Coffee Machine.”
Ellison Tjirera [00:01:22] I mean, it’s like a coffee machine or whatever it is.
Ndeenda Shivute-Nakapunda [00:01:25] It’s the big golden coffee machine-looking building on the hill.
Roman Mars [00:01:29] It stands five stories above the adjacent traffic circle. And it really does look a lot like a big industrial coffee maker that you’d find in a banquet hall. It’s a huge gold and black cylinder on stilts with an empty space underneath. Two big glass elevators run up the legs.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:01:45] This sleek, ultra-modern building is a museum.
Roman Mars [00:01:48] That’s reporter Ryan Lenora Brown. She’s based in South Africa.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:01:52] It was built to commemorate Namibia’s fight for independence from apartheid South Africa, which it achieved in 1990. And for many of the visitors I spoke with, the museum feels like a huge achievement.
Visitor [00:02:04] The artifacts, the statues–everything–the effort. Like, it’s a thumbs up for them. I am really proud. Like, this is one of the places that I can say I’m proud of in my country.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:02:18] But for a museum that commemorates throwing off the chains of colonialism and forging a new era of self-determination, it has one pretty strange feature. It wasn’t designed by a Namibian architect. It wasn’t even designed by an African architect. Do you know who made this museum?
Visitor [00:02:33] I have no idea.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:02:34] It was North Korea.
Visitor [00:02:36] Is it? Good to know, actually. I won’t forget that.
Roman Mars [00:02:43] Namibia’s Independence Memorial Museum was imagined and built by North Korea’s state-run design studio. In fact, North Korea is one of the most prolific builders of monuments around the world.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:02:54] The country has left a distinct visual stamp across Africa in particular. It’s constructed museums and monuments in more than a dozen African countries since the 1970s.
Roman Mars [00:03:04] There’s the African Renaissance statue in Dakar, Senegal, that’s taller than the Statue of Liberty and shows a family reading triumphantly towards the sky. There’s a futuristic mausoleum to the first president of Angola; it’s so Space Age, it’s known locally as “Sputnik.” And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there’s a huge statue of former President Laurent Kabila; it stands on a base whose text just says “NATIONAL HERO” in all caps.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:03:30] There’s a good chance you’ve seen North Korea’s design work before, even if you didn’t realize it. And the story of how North Korea came to be one of the world’s leading exporters of statues and monuments goes back decades to a moment when North Korea wasn’t the paranoid and isolated hermit kingdom we think of today.
Roman Mars [00:03:49] Instead, it was a young socialist upstart on a diplomatic tour, trying to prove itself to the world.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:03:58] Before World War Two, Korea was a Japanese colony. After the war, the Allies took over the peninsula and divided it in two. It became one of the fronts of the Cold War. North Korea was backed by the Soviet Union, and South Korea was occupied by the U.S.
Roman Mars [00:04:13] Each country saw itself as the rightful ruler of the entire peninsula. To prove their claim, both sides began a global PR blitz to show the world that they were the one true Korean nation.
Ben Young [00:04:25] Basically, North and South Korea were in a diplomatic competition for who could get the most recognition in international forums.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:04:32] That’s Ben Young. He’s a historian at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Guns, Guerrillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World.
Ben Young [00:04:41] So, they went to countries in the South Pacific–some really small countries like Nauru or Tuvalu–but really the primary space where North Korea and South Korea competed for diplomatic recognition was in Africa.
Roman Mars [00:04:58] This was for a simple reason. Africa was emerging from a long era of European colonization. And as these new countries began to win their independence, they hadn’t necessarily picked a side in the Cold War. And many were open to new alliances.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:05:12] For these newly independent African countries, North Korea had an appealing pitch, delivered by its leader, Kim Il-Sung. He would show them how to be a modern, developed country that wasn’t western or white. North Korea had done it, and so could they.
Ben Young [00:05:28] They had a lot of post-colonial officials, and leaders, and government ministers going to North Korea in the 1970s and 60s, talking about how much they saw North Korea as an admirable model of development with its free and universal health care system, with its rapid industrialization, and also the fact that it was this independent state that didn’t have foreign troops on their soil.
Roman Mars [00:05:54] What North Korea was offering to its potential African allies was a kind of independence starter kit. It was everything you need to build a country like they had–from military training and weapons to factories and agricultural projects, and eventually the statues and monuments you’d need to celebrate your triumph over colonialism.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:06:17] Which brings us back to Namibia–a country in southern Africa that became entangled with North Korea during its own independence struggle.
Roman Mars [00:06:24] Like the people of North Korea, Namibians had been victims of brutal colonial rule. First, the territory had been a German colony called “South West Africa.” Then in 1915, the territory came under South Africa’s control. That was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but South Africa took over and refused to let go.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:06:44] That meant that from the late 1940s onward, Namibia was ruled under South Africa’s racist apartheid regime.
Roman Mars [00:06:51] Resistance to apartheid was met with violence. And by the early 1960s, anti-apartheid activists in both South Africa and what is now known as Namibia had decided that the only way forward was to take up arms themselves. Many of them fled into exile to train as soldiers.
Mandume Mweshixwa [00:07:07] We need not only the reading of books, but also, we have to learn how to use guns and liberate the Namibian people from the colonial rule.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:07:22] Mandume Mweshixwa was in his early twenties when he joined the armed wing of Namibia’s Liberation Movement. The movement received support from across the socialist world, and some soldiers spent time training in places like the Soviet Union and China. During Mandume’s training, he was assigned to spend a year in a place he’d never heard much about: North Korea.
Roman Mars [00:07:40] And so one day, he got on a plane and flew to Pyongyang, where it turned out his hosts were startled by him.
Mandume Mweshixwa [00:07:47] Some were running away–to see a black skin. Some are coming to touch. Even grown-up people say, “Oh, What? Black? What type of skin is that?” To us, we were just laughing at them.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:08:04] From his North Korean teachers, Mandume learned to shoot a gun. He studied the differences between capitalism and communism. He trained as a farmer. And he learned to love spicy noodle soup.
Roman Mars [00:08:15] His host told him, “You’ll need to know all these things to run a modern socialist country one day.” I mean, maybe not the soup thing, but the rest of it.
Mandume Mweshixwa [00:08:24] It was very advanced. And we said, “Ah–these people–they developed their country. We want to do the same thing. When we got back, we want to develop our country like this. If they do things like they’re doing, why not us?”
Roman Mars [00:08:40] By the early 1970s, about 2,500 soldiers from across Africa had received training much like Mandume’s. In Namibia, these soldiers joined a guerrilla war against the apartheid government. They planted mines and bombs and attacked military convoys. They blew up infrastructure like bridges, tunnels, and border posts. This war of sabotage was meant to wear down and isolate South Africa–one of the last white governments on the continent.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:09:06] North Korea was one of several socialist countries supporting armed liberation movements in Africa. And a lot of its support was what you’d expect–in the form of guns and military expertise. But the country was also establishing its African presence in less orthodox ways.
Roman Mars [00:09:24] North Korea’s leader, Kim Il-Sung, knew the crucial role that architecture and design could play in building a new nation. In North Korea, he had made the built landscape into a kind of giant open air history lesson. There were murals, statues, and reliefs everywhere–in public squares and train stations. All the public art reinforced the story of the country’s triumph over imperialism and, of course, the glorious leader who led that fight.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:09:53] The epicenter for this kind of art in North Korea was a massive design studio located in Pyongyang. It was called “Mansudae.” The studio was founded in 1959, and it was part-artist’s-colony, part-factory, and all-propaganda-machine. Among Mansudae’s Greatest Hits were a 65-foot-tall bronze statue of Kim himself and a series of huge mosaics of the great leader, displayed in Pyongyang’s metro stations. In one, he is literally the sun, shining down over an imagined reunification of North and South Korea.
Roman Mars [00:10:28] These monuments were all done in a style called “socialist realism.” It’s an artistic genre that started in the Soviet Union and was perfected in the Cold War communist world. And despite the name, it’s not really about representing reality.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:10:43] It’s more about utopia–reality as you or your government would like it to be. Think Russian peasants striding joyfully through a sun dappled wheat field or Chairman Mao, surrounded by a crowd of happy Chinese factory workers. North Korean artists became masters of the form–and artists, in turn, became a revered part of North Korean society.
Byeok Song [00:11:14] In one word, it was joyous. We didn’t create voluntarily, but we would get this paper with slogans that we have to paint. For example, “Let’s show our loyalty for the Kim family.” And then we would stay up all night to paint those slogans on the streets, so that laborers can see them and be motivated to show their loyalty to the Kim family.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:11:39] That’s Byeok Song. I spoke with him through a translator. Decades ago, he was a worker at a steel factory in the North Korean city of Songnim. He says that–just for fun–he used to sometimes sketch his colleagues on their smoke breaks. One day, a party official saw his drawings and offered him a job making propaganda posters for the local government in that region. It was prestigious work.
Byeok Song [00:12:09] Because it’s a work of praising the Kim family, we were looked at with a certain sense of pride. And also, it was in manual labor; we worked with brushes. So, other regular workers were envious, and my parents also took great pride in my work.
Roman Mars [00:12:29] For over a decade, Mansudae had focused on creating work for the great leader and–in the process–became a state sponsored arts behemoth. It would eventually become a massive campus with more than 1,000 working artists and its own soccer stadium, clinic, paper mill, and kindergarten. Most of the country’s best artists ended up there.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:12:48] But in the 1970s–around the same time Mandume Mweshixwa was training in the North Korean military camp–the studio decided to expand its work into other parts of the world. It founded a division called “Mansudae Overseas Projects.” Now, North Korea wouldn’t just be training and funding guerrilla fighters across Africa–they would also be designing monuments and memorials for their allies when they achieved liberation.
Roman Mars [00:13:12] This monument diplomacy was well received, especially because it was subsidized–from start to finish–by the North Korean government. Mansudae artists and architects designed these works in Pyongyang and then constructed them on-site with their own crew of workers–all without the recipient country lifting a finger.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:13:31] But just as North Korea statue exports were picking up, its fortunes as a country were plummeting. In the 1980s, the country’s economy began to crash. South Korea was already pulling ahead when the North was dealt a near-fatal blow.
ABC Announcer [00:13:46] From ABC, this is World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, reporting tonight from Berlin.
Peter Jennings [00:13:53] From the Berlin Wall, specifically, take a look at them. They’ve been there since last night. They are here in the thousands. They are here in the tens of thousands. Occasionally, they shout, “The wall must go.”
Roman Mars [00:14:05] The Soviet Union fell, and the Cold War ended. And in the process, North Korea lost its main sponsor and supporter. The North Koreans had always talked a big game about self-sufficiency, but the reality was that the country had always relied heavily on Soviet aid, and without it, they fell into crisis.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:14:23] The country’s economy all but collapsed. And then when it was hit with a series of natural disasters, people began to starve. The world increasingly saw North Korea as a pariah state with a cruel and ruthless leader at the helm.
Roman Mars [00:14:36] Although the North Korean government refused most outside help, it was desperate for hard currency. And one of its few remaining exports–one of its last points of connection with the outside world–was its giant statues.
Ben Young [00:14:51] Quite honestly, the only country that really does socialist realism is North Korea.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:14:57] That’s historian Ben Young again. He says the big, bold, theatrical style still had appeal, especially to young African countries trying to shape how people saw their history.
Ben Young [00:15:08] If you’re an African, post-colonial nation, and you’re looking for something that is decidedly non-Western–that is anti-colonial–you’re going to be looking at the North Koreans and the North Korean artists and sculptors. They’re very talented, and they also come cheap.
Sam Nujoma [00:15:29] This is the day for which tens of thousands of Namibian patriots lay down their lives.
Roman Mars [00:15:40] In 1990, Namibia finally negotiated its independence after more than a century of struggle, first under German and then South African rule. One of the leaders of its guerrilla movement, Sam Nujoma, became the first president.
Sam Nujoma [00:15:54] Today, our hearts are filled with a great joy and jubilation.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:16:01] But as with any country born out of a long struggle, Nujoma and other Namibian leaders faced a massive challenge in uniting people behind a new story about the nation.
Roman Mars [00:16:10] The history Namibians had received from their colonizers taught them every single day that they were inferior and uncivilized–a people without history.
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:16:19] The narrative was swiped from the nation, but that is the kind of history we have been given.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:16:25] That’s Gerhardt Gurirab, who grew up in pre-independence Namibia. Back then, history lessons focused on the great empires of Europe and the civilizing powers of white people in Africa.
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:16:36] There was no combat history. You didn’t hear about liberation movements. So, the kind of history there was indoctrination.
Roman Mars [00:16:49] And even in the new Namibia, that history loomed large. There were physical relics of colonialism everywhere–in the form of old colonial buildings and colonial monuments.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:17:00] The Namibian government decided it was time to tell a new story–one centered on liberation. In 2001, Namibia’s cabinet approved a plan to build a museum on the site of one of those colonial monuments. It was a deeply controversial statue of a German soldier called “The Reiterdenkmal.” The site had also been a concentration camp, where Namibians were held by Germans in the early 1900s. And so, the location of the new museum was symbolic.
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:17:26] The museum is not a neutral institution. It is a powerful institution to mold the mind of the people–to let them understand the message of “We have overcome the colonization of this country, and this is where we are now.”
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:17:51] Gurirab is also a historian and would go on to become the museum’s curator once it was built.
Roman Mars [00:17:56] After considering a range of designs, the Namibian government chose North Korea’s Mansudae to build the Independence Museum. The choice was, in many ways, a strange one. The new Namibia wasn’t a socialist dictatorship; it was a democracy. Its views on the world seemed almost diametrically opposed to those of North Korea.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:18:16] But North Korea was also an old friend. During the Cold War, when many countries in the West–including the U.S.–had worked against Namibian independence, North Korea had supported them.
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:18:27] During those dark days, North Korea was one of those countries which supported the liberation movements in Africa.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:18:36] And in the new Namibia, Mansudae had already built a number of projects–including a memorial to heroes of the liberation struggle, a new presidential palace, a munitions factory, and a military museum.
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:18:47] So, looking from that background, our leadership decided to ask the North Korean company to complete the museum.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:18:59] The museum opened on March 21st, 2014, Namibian Independence Day. In front of it–almost exactly where the Reiterdenkmal colonial statue once stood, was a huge statue of Namibia’s first president, Sam Nujoma. His right arm was thrust towards the sky, holding a copy of Namibia’s constitution.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:19:24] Gerhart Gurirab gave me a tour of the Independence Memorial Museum. And at the start, I was feeling a bit skeptical. I’d seen images of Mansudae’s other works in Africa; from a distance, a lot of them looked loud and kind of obvious, maybe a little bit tacky.
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:19:39] We are in the fifth gallery of the Independence Memorial Museum.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:19:44] But it’s one thing to see a photo of a giant Mansudae mural. It’s totally different to be actually standing in front of one. And in the first gallery of the museum are two floor-to-ceiling paintings that immediately floored me.
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:19:56] We are depicting the history of the early resistance in the country, and here we do have images of the first warriors of this country.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:20:10] The painting he’s describing shows dozens, maybe hundreds of people lined up in rows facing the viewer. Some are wearing uniforms and carrying magazines of ammunition. Others hold wooden spears. Each of them is painted in vivid, hyper realistic detail. And the collective effect is striking. This is over a century of Namibian resistance compressed into a single moment. And this one is very important because when people walk in, this is going to be the very, very first thing they see. So, what do you want people’s impression to be when they just walk in and see this?
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:20:42] This is how our, let’s say, ancestors–our first freedom fighters of this country–looked like.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:20:50] The backbone of the museum are these giant immersive Mansudae artworks, and some of them have a lot of violent and gruesome imagery. There’s a gallery about the Namibian genocide. It was carried out by the Germans in the early 1900s, and the walls are indented with huge scratch marks that represent people’s desperate attempts to escape from German concentration camps.
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:21:11] It is scratches from men and women and also of children, which have been brutalized or killed during those days.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:21:21] It’s hard not to come away from these images with a sense of the incredible price that Namibia paid to be free. But as we move through the museum, the North Korean connection also starts to get more and more obvious.
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:21:33] We see here images of Dr. Sam Nujoma with the president of North Korea.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:21:40] So, the one of North Korea is there in the center?
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:21:43] Yes.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:21:43] It’s in a gold frame. All the other ones are not framed. Yeah. So, they chose to put that one in the center like that?
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:21:49] Yeah.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:21:50] And then finally, in the last room of the museum is an image that I can only describe as very, very North Korean. There are ten people in this mural.
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:22:00] This is a very important image for Namibia. After independence, this is how our people have been looking up. You can see all walks of life–our farmers, our brothers and sisters, our children…
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:22:20] They’re all facing a rainbow sun, which is emanating rays in the colors of the Namibian flag–red, green, and blue. Hovering above the entire image is the face of Namibia’s great leader, Sam Nujoma.
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:22:33] Yeah, because it is how we see ourselves now; independent people looking up to the new dawn.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:22:42] The image feels like heavy handed propaganda. But you know what else does? Mount Rushmore. There’s nothing more excessive than carving the heads of your favorite presidents into the side of a mountain. Patriotism lends itself to monumentalist art.
Gerhardt Gurirab [00:22:57] This is the new birth of a nation with the new symbols of nationalism. So, that is what people really see when they leave this museum.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:23:13] I think about what Gerhart Gurirab told me about his history classes growing up, where he was told again and again that he was primitive–that civilization had been given to him by white people. Around us in the museum are lots of young Namibians, browsing the exhibits, being told a very different story about who they are and where they come from.
Young Museum Visitor [00:23:33] I think mostly for me it serves a reminder of what the ancestors did–you know–my forefathers, the fight. So, I really like that–in times where I feel like I’m not grateful enough for the freedom that I have–coming here sort of just, you know, reminds me to be grateful.
Roman Mars [00:23:57] The Independence Memorial Museum has clearly served an important purpose. It’s helped reorient the story of Namibia around the struggle to be free. But less than a decade after opening, the museum is already starting to show signs of wear. Tiles are falling off the facade. The TV screens in many of the exhibits aren’t working.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:24:18] And more people have started to ask questions about the building’s provenance. North Korea is widely recognized as a country under a brutal and oppressive regime. In 2017, Mansudae Overseas Projects was one of four North Korean state-owned companies sanctioned by the U.N. The intention was to deter North Korea from further expanding its nuclear weapons program. That largely ended Mansudae’s reign as purveyors of socialist realist art around the world.
Roman Mars [00:24:45] And beyond that, there’s a new generation of Namibians asking why such an important national institution wasn’t built with more Namibian involvement. The museum shows its foreignness in big and small ways.
Ndeenda Shivute-Nakapunda [00:24:58] All the murals don’t look Namibian at all; the people don’t look Namibian. And it’s very odd to look at.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:25:05] This is Ndeenda Shivute-Nakapunda, the curator of the National Art Gallery, which is a short walk from the Independence Museum. And she finds the images in the museum unsettling in a number of ways, starting with the basic fact that the people in the images look subtly North Korean.
Ndeenda Shivute-Nakapunda [00:25:21] Not that we’ve got one image–but they just don’t look Black. They don’t have our classic, you know, Black features.
Roman Mars [00:25:29] She also thinks the museum could have done more to integrate traditional Namibian architecture and design. And then there’s also the story the museum tells. It feels gruesome and oversimplified, she says.
Ndeenda Shivute-Nakapunda [00:25:41] There’s the blood. There are the decapitated bodies. There are the bombs. And then at the end, you have that massive mural, where–you know–they’re standing. Sunshine, freedom, and flowers. It just feels like a school textbook–very simplified, kind of like, “One, two, three, and then this is how we got to where we are.”
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:26:01] But even so, young Namibians, like Ndeenda, are using the museum in ways that were probably not imagined by its designers. There’s a word here for the generation of Namibians born after the end of apartheid: the “born-frees.” Many older Namibians have a lifelong loyalty to the political leaders who led the liberation movement. But born-frees are much more irreverent. And in recent years, they’ve been at the forefront of movements fighting corruption and advocating for LGBTQ rights. Some of these protests have taken place right at the foot of the enormous Sam Nujoma statue in front of the museum.
Ndeenda Shivute-Nakapunda [00:26:34] And I find that very interesting because the protesters have been taking up that space at the staircase–with him towering over them.
Roman Mars [00:26:52] One of the most important differences between putting up this kind of art in North Korea and putting it up in Namibia is that in a democratic society, people can decide what the art means to them. They can interact with it in ways that challenge its meaning. It’s almost impossible to imagine ordinary North Koreans being free to stage protests at the sight of a towering Kim Jong-il statue. But the equivalent is happening in Namibia. The Independence Museum might be steering people towards one version of the past, but conversations are also swirling around it, adding new layers to that meaning all the time.
Ndeenda Shivute-Nakapunda [00:27:28] If you say, “We’ve got liberties and freedom,” well, then show it to us. I don’t think they thought that space would be used like that.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:27:41] I’ve lived in southern Africa for almost a decade now, and I’m still struck by how history here often feels like wet clay–something that’s still soft and can still be reshaped. There are no Kim Il-sungs in a country like Namibia; no one is untouchable in that way. At best, there are Sam Nujomas–brave people with messy, imperfect legacies that are still being debated. You can still build statues to that kind of person, of course, but they’re always going to feel like they could be toppled.
Roman Mars [00:28:25] Coming up after the break, we hear more from former propaganda artist Byeok Song and his remarkable journey out of North Korea. None of us are just one thing. The Lenovo Slim laptop was designed to give you the power and mobility to just be you. The Yoga Slim 9i, designed on the Intel Evo platform, is a carbon-neutral and Energy Star certified laptop made from recycled materials. A stylish, thin, and light comfort-edged chassis–accented by 3D glass–provides optimal and comfortable using and carrying. Move forward with a powerful soundtrack and flawless visuals–with an up to 4K OLED, PureSight touch display, coupled with the majesty of Bowers & Wilkins speakers. Get the power to create from anywhere–any time–thanks to 12th Gen Intel Core processors. With the Lenovo AI Core 2.0 chip, you’ll enjoy smart features like a zero-touch login and adaptive screen brightness. Plus, Lenovo Premium Care is included on all Lenovo Slim devices. Get holiday shopping. The Lenovo Slim is available now at lenovo.com. That’s lenovo.com–and all major retailers. Did you know life insurance through your workplace may not offer enough protection for your family’s needs? Policygenius gives you a smarter way to find and buy the right coverage. Policygenius was built to modernize the life insurance industry. Their technology makes it easy to compare life insurance quotes from top companies like AIG and Prudential–in just a few clicks–to find your lowest price. With Policygenius you can find life insurance policies that start at just $17 per month per $500,000 of coverage. And Policygenius has licensed agents that can help you find options that offer coverage in as little as a week and avoid unnecessary medical exams. They’re not incentivized to recommend one insurer over another, so you can trust their guidance. There are no added fees, and your personal info is private. No wonder Policygenius has thousands of five-star reviews on Google and Trustpilot. Your loved ones deserve a financial safety net; you deserve a smarter way to find and buy it. Head to policygenius.com and click the link in the description to get your free life insurance quotes and see how much you could save. That’s policygenius.com. Think about a bicycle. It takes balance to get where you want to go. Now think about business. Whatever your business or organization, you ride the line between numbers and people. And just like a bike, it takes balance. Unlike a bike, it takes a bunch of people who know what they’re doing. With CLA, you can find trusted CPAs, consultants, and wealth advisors. And trust me, you might think you know what you’re doing when it comes to running your own business, but you do not. You need all these experts, and CLA can help you find them. That’s CLA. They’ll get you there. Clifton Lawson Allen LLP Investment Advisory Services are offered through CliftonLarsonAllen Wealth Advisors LLC–an SCC Registered Investment Advisor. Whether you’re listening to us at home or on the go, T-Mobile keeps you connected to what matters most. With T-Mobile, you get more 5G bars in more places, and they cover the most highway miles with 5G. That means you can quickly research those architectural details and questions that pop up while you’re out and about in real time. T-Mobile’s got our 99% Invisible listeners covered. Visit your local T-Mobile store to make the switch and join the leader in 5G coverage today. See 5G device coverage and plan details at t-mobile.com. We’re back with Ryan Lenora Brown, who reported this week’s story. And Ryan, we’re going to be talking more about the artist Byeok Song, who we heard from in the main story. And he’s the North Korean artist.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:32:33] Yeah, that’s right. And Byeok Song has an amazing story of his own that we wanted listeners to hear about because, while he worked for years as a propaganda artist in North Korea, he actually eventually escaped the country.
Roman Mars [00:32:43] Okay, so tell us how that happened.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:32:44] So, for a number of years, he was working as a propaganda painter–and actually not for Mansudae. He worked for his local government, basically making posters to hang up around the city where he lived–glorified the Kim family, encouraged people to be loyal workers. But he knew of Mansudae because it was basically the highest pinnacle that a propaganda worker like himself might ascend to.
Byeok Song [00:33:16] Even though I could imagine a future working in Mansudae, it was but a dream. I couldn’t even imagine–I didn’t dare to imagine–that I would end up there. In order to work there, you will have to graduate from an elite art college in the capital, Pyongyang, and then have to be a member of the party. Thousands of artists from a comprehensive–full of talents, like statue, oil painting, and handcraft–work there. And for me–from my background–it was hard to imagine that I can someday go there.
Roman Mars [00:33:53] Huh. So, Mansudae is kind of, like, the Harvard of propaganda artwork.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:33:58] Yeah, that’s right. And the artists there are really revered in North Korea. But even outside Mansudae, being an artist in North Korea is pretty good work. It spared Byeok from having to do hard labor, for instance. And he was producing these works that people he knew were going to see out in public. So, there was a lot of pride attached to it, too. But then everything started to change in the 90s, when famine began to spread across North Korea.
Byeok Song [00:34:29] Although pride is important, what matters the most is your family. Only when families prosper, the country can prosper. But during the 1990s, the Russian system of North Korea completely collapsed, and people could no longer get food from the government. And people had to watch their family members die from starvation. And what kind of hope could you have in that situation for the country of North Korea?
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:34:57] So Byeok Song’s family simply just didn’t have enough to eat.
Byeok Song [00:35:02] My family was on the brink of death as well, so my father and I crossed over to China to let my family survive. But as we were crossing the river, my father got swept away, and I got arrested by the border guards while trying to save him. The oppression by the border guards that I had to endure cannot be described in words. And all that I had left after my time at the facility was hate for the Kim family. And I regretted the life that I had lived.
Roman Mars [00:35:36] That was just unbelievably tragic. It’s so sad to hear.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:35:40] Yeah. So, eventually a Byeok Song was released, and he crossed the border into China again. And this time he made it. But many, many other people did not. It’s hard to know exactly how many people died, but it’s estimated that between 1994 and 1998, 500,000 North Koreans died from starvation–including a lot of Song’s family. Some experts actually think the number is much higher–as high as 2 or 3 million.
Roman Mars [00:36:06] Wow. So, Byeok Song made it into China. What happened then?
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:36:13] He settled in South Korea first, and later he moved to Germany, which is where he lives now. And he watched Mansudae become this big player in places like Namibia, building these works that were commemorating independence and liberation. He said it was really painful to see.
Byeok Song [00:36:42] I used to see their works in the news. And I have even met a worker from Mansudae Studio, who was dispatched overseas but arrived eventually in South Korea. Because North Korea is a dictatorship, when people are dispatched overseas to create statues or paintings, all the money that they earn as salary is taken by the North Korean government. And it makes me sad to see them. Why should they live the life of a slave–even outside of North Korea? The statues that they built–they are worth tens of thousands of dollars apiece. But these workers don’t even know how much North Korea is getting for their work. What they only get is some food items–like rice and cooking oil–sent by the government to their family members in North Korea.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:37:33] The fascinating thing is that Byeok Song’s own art has taken this really interesting turn. So, I want to show you one of his more recent paintings.
Roman Mars [00:37:42] So, this is a painting of a North Korean flag as it was painted on a wall. There’s, like, a crack in the wall, and all these men are shoving their heads into it–maybe pushing each other into it–kind of maybe burying their heads in it. And in a weird way, it’s really striking and quite cool, actually.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:37:59] Yeah. So, what Byeok Sung has done is to take the stylized work of socialist realism–which is the style he worked in as a propaganda artist for the state–and use it to satirize the North Korean regime. But it actually took him a while after he left North Korea to get to that place as an artist.
Byeok Song [00:38:22] It was embarrassing at first. I only tried to paint what’s beautiful in a beautiful way, but my professor told me to find something that only I have–to look for that, and dig deeper into it, and study it. And I thought hard and concluded that my mission–the purpose of my painting–should be to reveal the reality of North Korea as it is. Nothing added, nothing subtracted. So, that settled in my mind as my mission.
Roman Mars [00:38:53] I love this trying to add a new realism to his socialist realism.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:38:58] Yeah. No, I agree. And I think, for me, what’s really interesting about these images is that they’re quite funny, right? They draw attention to the fact that North Korea is this weird, isolated, little country that can be really easy to laugh at. But, you know, also below the surface–under that comedy–are these really kind of painful, tragic undertones. You can feel in this art that the stakes of North Korea’s regime–you know, its paranoid, repressive behavior–it’s actually people’s lives.
Roman Mars [00:39:26] Yeah. Yeah. Well, I’m really happy to get deeper insight into Byeok Song after North Korea because this is really amazing work. And he seems even more like an amazing character than he was in the original story that you presented. It’s outstanding. Thank you so much.
Ryan Lenora Brown [00:39:40] Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.
Roman Mars [00:39:49] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Ryan Brown. Edited by Kelly Prime and executive producer Delaney Hall. Original music by Swan Real. Sound mix and additional production by Martín Gonzalez. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Chris Berube, Jayson DeLeon, Christopher Johnson, Emmett FitzGerald, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks this week to Se Eun Gong, Dhashen Moodley, Kambanda Veii, Ellison Tijerera Hildegard Titus, Nashilongwe Shipwe, and Jaco Wasserfall. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.