The Grand Panorama Museum: Cambodia’s newest tourist attraction is a ‘gift’ from North Korea

The Grand Panorama Museum is a way of making hard cash for Pyongyang, as Poppy McPherson in Phnom Penh reports

Phnom Penh

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.


Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones