The Time Kim Jong-il Ate Six Beagle-Sized Rabbits
Szmolinsky prided himself on the size and quality of his beagle-sized rabbits; the North Koreans shared his taste. “22 pounds… 22 pounds!…” one of the visitors kept repeating. The guests explained that they were hoping to purchase some of the rabbits for a breeding program — to help feed starving children in their country. Excited to contribute to a good cause, Szmolinsky offered a discount and promptly parted with his six biggest bunnies.
In nighttime satellite images, North Korea is a patch of darkness between expanses of light. Like a black hole, this alien world doesn’t emit light, information, or even goods. And yet a handful of items sneak through—or are pushed through — the tightly controlled borders. Paradoxically, the objects that do cross the North Korean frontier tend to be like Szmolinsky’s rabbits: obscenely large.
Take, for example, one of North Korea’s most iconic exports: the African Renaissance Monument in Dakar, Senegal. At 1.5 times the size of the Statue of Liberty, this bare-chested man holding a baby in one arm and a scantily-clad, technically-not-bare-breasted woman in the other is Africa’s largest monument. Given its location atop one of a pair of hills called “Les Mamelles” (“The Breasts,”) this might also be the world’s largest fractal nipple.
The statue represents A̶f̶r̶i̶c̶a̶ ̶t̶a̶k̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶i̶t̶s̶ ̶d̶e̶s̶t̶i̶n̶y̶ ̶i̶n̶t̶o̶ ̶i̶t̶s̶ ̶o̶w̶n̶ ̶h̶a̶n̶d̶s̶ ex-president Abdoulaye Wade taking Africa’s money into his own pockets. In a characteristic stroke of genius, the president decreed that he deserves 35% of the proceeds from the entrance fees; the monument was his idea, and everyone knows that intellectual property should be protected.
Perhaps the remaining 65% of ticket sales should go to North Korean laborers. After all, the monument was built by North Korea’s Mansudae Overseas Projects — the export branch of the art factory responsible for grandiose colossi of the deified Kim dynasty. “Only the North Koreans could build my statue. I had no money,” Wade explained. Instead of money, he paid with a piece of Senegalese land, reportedly worth six times more than the statue’s $27 million price tag.¹
When the statues were first unveiled, their faces looked disconcertingly Asian. Rumor has it that when Wade requested a makeover, he provided his own countenance (as well as that of his wife and son) as a model. Imams condemned the monument as idolatrous; Wade retorted that Senegalese Christians get to have statues of Jesus and “he’s not God.”
This r̵e̵p̵r̵e̵s̵e̵n̵t̵a̵t̵i̵o̵n̵ ̵o̵f̵ ̵A̵f̵r̵i̵c̵a̵’̵s̵ ̵t̵r̵i̵u̵m̵p̵h̵a̵n̵t̵ ̵e̵s̵c̵a̵p̵e̵ ̵f̵r̵o̵m̵ ̵c̵e̵n̵t̵u̵r̵i̵e̵s̵ ̵o̵f̵ ̵s̵l̵a̵v̵e̵r̵y̵ handiwork of unpaid North Korean laborers is rightly loathed. For Senegal’s conservative Muslim population, the monument’s brazenly bare nipple is just the cherry on top of the ill-conceived, corrupt project. But despite the public’s outrage, the statue has become one of Dakar’s main tourist attractions.
Africa is dotted with monuments like this — social realist monstrosities built at a discount by North Korea. They emit a halo of controversy for a while, then imperceptibly blend into the fabric of reality.
I understand this process well; I didn’t notice the North Korean imports in my life either. It never occurred to me to ask why my Polish grandmother hung oriental-looking prints on the walls of her apartment, tucking pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary into the frames. The prints seemed as ordinary as the other paraphernalia, at home among the multiple calendars illustrated with pictures of John Paul II — or that painting of lions found on eBay by my uncle. (Its creator had clearly never seen a lion but lacked the usual artist’s excuse of living in the fifteenth century.) Between the jars of local honey and carafes of homemade cherry liqueur, even the bottle with the pickled snake knew how to camouflage itself.
Eventually, I learned that these things were brought back from Korea by my grandfather (who passed away before I was born). It wasn’t until a few years ago that it occurred to me to ask which Korea he had been visiting — and why.
My grandfather, it turns out, had been a construction worker sent to build the Polish embassy in Pyongyang around 1970. Back then, Poland and North Korea were allies in the communist bloc, so there was only one country my grandmother could have meant by “Korea.” It’s hard to imagine today, but back then working in Pyongyang was quite lucrative, and Grandpa brought back cash as well as souvenirs.
The days when one might make a living working in North Korea seem like a dream now, but exports from the country have continued into the 21st century — occasionally even into Europe. (At least, until the UN imposed stricter sanctions in 2017.) In 2005, the city of Frankfurt commissioned the restoration of the 1910 Fairy Tale Fountain from Mansudae Overseas Projects. Why employ the North Koreans? “The top tier artists in Germany simply don’t make realist work anymore,” art historian Klaus Klemp explained. I’d wager that the low price was a bigger factor, but I suppose it’s also safer to ask for a fountain from a people who hadn’t heard of Duchamp.
It takes a certain kind of person to commission a fountain, let alone a 171 foot bronze statue. But one North Korean export will appeal to anyone: propaganda posters. Just look at these beauties.
The hand-painted originals of these posters were collected by Pier Luigi Cecioni, who fell in love with the work of Mansudae artists during a 2005 visit to Pyongyang. Soon, he was receiving a regular DHL delivery of posters, prints, and paintings direct from Mansudae Studios.
Cecioni insists that he dealt “only with the art of North Korea, not with its government.” “It’s like a big art company, there are many branches,” he argues. “The money they received from us essentially goes back into running the studio. The very large statues — that’s Mansudae, but it’s so different from the other things they do.”
If Karl Szmolinsky (of the elephantine bunnies) were to hear Cecioni, he’d raise a skeptical eyebrow. “Never trust propagandists,” he might say, pointing morosely at the poster commanding “Let Us Launch an All-People Campaign to Breed Rabbits in Schools and Work-Places.”
When the all-people campaign first recruited Szmolinsky, they asked him to visit North Korea to help oversee the breeding program. He’d never been abroad before and was excited to travel. The local TV channel would make a film about him; they even gave him a personalized hat and jacket. He was giddy with anticipation.
The day before his flight, he received a phone call. “Herr Szmolinsky, you’re not needed anymore. We have everything under control.”
He would never set foot in North Korea. Meanwhile, the bulbous bunnies were getting ready for their final appearance — on Kim Jong-il’s banquet table.
 It’s unclear whether all of the land went to North Korea; other parties, including Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby, appear to have been involved in the design of the statue.