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The previous North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visiting the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang.  AFP
The previous North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visiting the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang. AFP

Meeting North Korean artists in their Siem Reap museum

Like many things about the Hermit Kingdom, the new Angkor-themed museum is a bit odd. Poppy McPherson took a tour, and met some of the secretive people who have created it.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the yet-to-open North Korean museum in Siem Reap was gloomily lit. There was near-total silence, aside from the mechanical buzz of a generator and the odd comment from a chubby North Korean man who served as a de facto tour guide.

“This is a painting,” he said, pointing at a depiction of an Angkorian temple. His English wasn’t the best, and my Korean non-existent. But communication problems weren’t the only factor in what was a tense tour: it gradually became more and more clear visitors weren’t welcome.

Secrecy has shrouded the Grand Panorama museum, a $10 million tribute to Angkor featuring paintings, sculptures and cinema, and funded by a North Korean art studio. Doors were slated to open earlier this year, but didn’t.

A painting featuring North Korean schoolchildren. AFP
A painting featuring North Korean schoolchildren. AFP

When it comes to the Hermit Kingdom, the West is forced to rely on intelligence from South Korea and China and other sometime allies. The strange isolation of the country was especially apparent this week when the impulsive young leader Kim Jong-un purged his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek in spectacular style. Analysts are forced to interpret what they can from the smallest tidbits. This museum, believed to be associated with the purged uncle’s wife, is no different.

I took a circular path around the empty hall in a Khmer-style building about three kilometres from the Angkor complex. Paintings lined the walls: smiling children astride water buffalos, a running brook, numerous images of Angkor, including a floor-to-ceiling oil rendering of the Bayon temple. There was a miniature model of the temple complex. Near the exit, tiny Apsara dancer dolls with Korean features and snow-white skin were enclosed in glass boxes with $50 price-tags.

But the centrepiece that formed an extra room in the centre of the building was the “grand panorama” from which the museum takes its name: a 120-by-13-metre mosaic depicting war and daily life in the Angkorian era. I wasn’t allowed inside. “No point,” the guide said. Instead, we lingered over the 3D movie theatre and adjoining VIP room heralded by a sign labelled “Angkor Vat”.

“Visitors will understand Khmer culture and civilisation more deeply after visiting this museum,” promised Bun Narith, director-general at the Apsara Authority, speaking on the phone a few days later.

“We hope it will open soon,” he added.

Work has been ongoing for more than a year, with builders flown in from the Hermit Kingdom as well as more than 50 painters and sculptors – six of whom were still working during my visit, according to the reluctant tour guide.

He urged me to return in a couple of months. “There will be a big opening with the Cambodian government,” he said.

North Koreans pass a giant propaganda poster of the late leader Kim Il-sung in the North Korean capital Pyongyang. AFP
North Koreans pass a giant propaganda poster of the late leader Kim Il-sung in the North Korean capital Pyongyang. AFP

The delay was ostensibly due to the construction of a car park. But in early December, the car-park was still unfinished and there was no opening date.

Historian Milton Osborne, a Sihanouk biographer, called the museum “yet another example of the rather puzzling relationship that Cambodia has had with the North Korean regime”.

The “likely but partial answer”, he wrote in an email, was that it might be used to funnel funds back to Pyongyang, the capital of the impoverished nation.

“I think it is also seen as a way to engage in a propaganda exercise in a country, Cambodia, that unlike many others is ready to accommodate it,” Osborne added.

Phnom Penh must be one of the only cities in the world where there are streets named after dictators, including Chairman Mao and “eternal president” Kim Il-sung who was both the iron-fisted father of communist North Korea and a friend and confidant to Cambodia’s late King Father Norodom Sihanouk.

So it’s not such a surprise that the two countries would join forces on a grand project involving the powerful yongyang art studio Mansudae. Since it was established in 1959, the studio has defined the country’s aesthetics, designing everything from “Kim pins”, lapel pins bearing the face of the country’s rulers, to enormous propaganda portraits.

With a labour force of 4,000, including some 1,000 artists, according to its website, the studio is probably the largest art production centre in the world.

The art – which is solely figurative – encompasses sculpture, ceramics, embroidery, woodcutting, calligraphy and more. The Mansudae website also mentions jewel painting, a rare style featuring precious and semi-precious stones indigenous to Korea.

The studio is the first point of call when it comes to the country’s appetite for enormous monuments. to its leaders. But their artists have also been commissioned for projects abroad, especially in countries with which the country has diplomatic relations: fellow states in the US’s so-called axis of evil (Syria, Iran) but also some Western nations. Recent delegations have toured projects in Egypt and Italy.

The exterior of the unfinished museum.
The exterior of the unfinished museum. Thik Kaliyann

The projects have not always been welcomed. Senegal’s African Renaissance Monument, the tallest such structure in Africa at about 50-metres high and built by Mansudae sculptors, drew the ire of local artists for its Stalinist appearance.

“It represents absolutely nothing and its symbolism is absolutely zero,” Senagalese sculptor Ousmane Sow told the Phnom Penh Post last year.

While this new museum might be the most high-profile public sign North Korean enterprise in Cambodia, it’s not the first. The country is home to two branches of Pyongyang, a chain restaurant operated by the North Korean government.

Michael Madden, the editor of NK Leadership Watch, a leading blog on the country’s political and military leadership, believes the two are linked to the same “regional chiefain”.

“Whoever is behind both the restaurants and the new museum is likely to be an official of the foreign trade and economic cooperation mission at its Cambodian embassy, or works for a North Korean company that runs its business in the country,” Madden wrote in an email.

Workers early on in the construction stage of the museum.
Workers early on in the construction stage of the museum. Thik Kaliyann

“A regional chieftain like that monitors all foreign trade or economic activity in the country, ensures money is deposited or sent to the home country and keeps local employees under surveillance.

“The country earns fairly healthy revenues from these projects.”

The Mansudae studio and its associated projects, he added, can be traced to Kim Kyong-hui, current leader Kim Jong-un’s aunt and wife to the now-purged Jang Song-thaek.

Kim Hyong-hui oversees a network of North Korean companies that license the ownership of restaurants and supply chains abroad, according to Madden.

“She is very close, at least politically, to her nephew and is the executor of the late leader Kim Jong-il’s final will, thus acting as a guarantor of her nephew’s leadership,” he said, before news of her husband’s expulsion broke.

“The atelier’s overseas projects and art sales are, something in which she has a general managerial involvement, but she is not involved in its daily operations.”

The North Korean embassy could not be reached for comment.

The guide didn’t give much away, either. He declined to reveal his name, or much about himself – except that he has lived on-and-off between Siem Reap and Pyongyang for about a decade. As for the artists, their liberties are likely to have been tightly restricted, according to Madden.

“They generally all reside in the same quarters and are driven to and from the job site every day. There is also a degree of surveillance and monitoring by security or party officials,” he wrote.

With all the security, it was hard to imagine a group of bohemian North Korean artists painting still lifes while leaning on an ancient stairway, free to come and go as they please.

Did they set up shop with easels and canvas outside Angkor “Vat” for inspiration? When asked whether North Korean artists actually visited the temples, our guide said: “they do it by thinking”.

Authoritarian regimes, from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to Stalin’s Soviet Union, seem to have a soft spot for artists, so long as the artists are doing exactly what they are instructed to. In North Korea, some receive titles and are celebrated in state media, while military units and social organisations hold art contests.

Among the paintings of historical and tropical idyll at the Grand Panorama museum are two scenes that couldn’t be more different: illustrations of snowy Mount Paektu, the mythical birthplace of Kim Jong-il, whose name is etched into the mountainside in red script. “Our leader,” said the North Korean guide, “you know him?”

Sihanouk certainly knew his father well. According to Osborne, Kim Il-sung’s support was crucial to Sihanouk during the years after 1979 and the fall of the Khmer Rouge, when, in his eyes, many others had abandoned him. Kim Il-sung offered refuge in Pyongyang, and a grand royal palace in which to stay.

Osborne describes their relationship as “an entirely personal affair in which [Sihanouk] was genuinely grateful for the hospitality and respect Kim Il-sung accorded him at a time when many others, in his eyes, had abandoned him.”

Prince Sisowath Thomico accompanied Sihanouk on his visits to Pyongyang. The last trip was in 2006.

Thomico remembers a grand house built in the traditional Korean style, where a number of Sihanouk’s films were shot.

“It was a big house, on a big land, with hills all around and a big lake. It was a very, very nice place to stay.

“The only person who supported the King Father was Kim Il-sung. He didn’t ask anything, he just listened.”

When Sihanouk returned to Cambodia in 1991, he was accompanied by a troupe of North Korean bodyguards, a gift from Kim Il-sung, according to Thomico.

“It showed the level of the relationship between them.”

In 2009 they returned to North Korea.

“I think the current government is more keen on having relations with South Korea because it is more interesting as far as economics is concerned,”Thomico added.

But the old relationship with South Korea’s neighbour has not faded completely, if this latest development is anything to judge by.

We were led outside to where a skinny man in a white vest-top and the same black sandals sat on the steps. He had big eyes and grey specks in his hair. I asked if he was an artist. The tour guide said yes. Then the pair began to mutter in Korean and it was clear the tour was over. I never did get the chance to ask him which painting was his.

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