The approach to Angkor Wat leads down a palm-fringed boulevard that this year brought nearly two million tourists to the ancient Cambodian temple complex. But if they had taken a slight detour down a different road, also flanked by trees, visitors would have seen a newer, kitschier attraction: the $15million (£9.1m) tribute to Cambodian culture funded and constructed by that unlikely patron of the arts, North Korea.
The Siem Reap-based Grand Panorama Museum, named after a 120m long by 13m high mural that lights up to reveal scenes of war and daily life in the Angkorian era, was scheduled to open last year. Like most attempts to explain North Korea, the reasons for the delay differ widely. Although the museum’s purpose is similarly oblique, analysts say it relates to North Korea’s search for influence and money as well as the peculiar diplomatic bond the hermit kingdom has with one of the world’s biggest tourist destinations.
Few foreigners have been inside. On the morning The Independent visited, a large circular hall was dimly lit and quiet. At least one artist was still working on smaller paintings, some of which still lay on the floor. A middle-aged North Korean construction manager who spoke a little English stressed the museum was “not open”, but reluctantly gave a rushed tour of the hundreds of artworks that filled the building. More than 50 artists were flown in to do the job, he said.
Most of the paintings showed Cambodian life during the Khmer empire, which flourished from the 8th to 15th centuries, as well as idealised scenes from rural existence today. But two were not like the others. They depicted the snowy Mount Paektu and a small wooden hut on its slopes, the mythical birthplace of former leader Kim Jong-Il. In addition to artwork, the museum has been equipped with a 3D film theatre, and a “VIP room”. Built by North Korea’s Mansudae art studio, the world’s largest art production centre with a labour force of 4,000, the Grand Panorama is believed to be one of the biggest overseas projects the North has initiated.
At first, it’s hard to imagine why any country would commission an isolated, autocratic government to build a museum of culture in a tourism hotspot. But for Cambodia, whose head of state once called North Korea’s iron-fisted founder “brother”, the news is not so surprising. The mercurial former King Norodom Sihanouk, who in the 1970s was a figurehead for the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, forged a close friendship with Kim Jong-Il’s father, Kim Il-sung, who ushered in a similarly brutal communist regime. Between 1979 and 2006, Sihanouk made numerous retreats to Pyongyang, where he relaxed in a 60-room royal palace and shot amateur films.
The “special relationship”, as it was referred to in a US diplomat Wikileaks cable from 2006, has since faded, following the deaths of both Kim Il-sung, in 1994, and Sihanouk, in 2012. The Cambodian government’s attention has turned to South Korea, the country’s second biggest investor. Nonetheless, Cambodia still holds the dubious accolade of hosting the world’s second highest concentration of North Korean overseas operations, after China.
The country is already home to three outlets of the government-run Pyongyang restaurant chain, and a fourth is on the way. The North Korean women who staff them and perform nightly dance shows are believed to be kept inside, under surveillance, and subjected to gruelling rehearsal schedules. The Kathmandu branch, closed in 2011, was found to be a North Korean spy base. Both the restaurants and Mansudae art studio are believed to be at least partly managed by Kim Jong-Il’s younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui, wife of Jang Song-thaek, who was publicly purged and then executed in December.
“Kim Kyong-hui is a principal of the network of companies which license the ownership of the restaurants, as well as the supply chains,” Michael Madden, editor of NK Leadership blog, told The Independent.
One unnamed official said Jang Song-thaek’s enormous power over lucrative overseas networks contributed to his ousting. Kim Kyong-hui is believed to have retained favour, unlike hundreds of her husband’s relatives sent to the gulags. The official said the Grand Panorama, which will be operated by North Korea for 10 years before a transfer of power to Cambodia, is “definitely going to be a funnel for making money” – with or without Jang Song-thaek and Kim Kyong-hui.
“North Korea is facing serious economic sanctions so is really desperate to get hard cash, so operating and constructing these kind of monuments is very lucrative work,” the official said.
The true reason for the delay in opening, the official added, is the North Korean government has demanded the fee for the Grand Panorama museum, which is located beside a new ticketing office for the Angkor Wat complex, be included in the overall cost of the temples. The current ticket price is US$40 (£24) for a three-day pass but if it were to be increased to include the Grand Panorama, tourists who want to visit the temples will have no choice but to contribute to Pyongyang coffers.
Despite repeated attempts to contact the North Korean embassy, representatives could not be reached.