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Inside the North Korean museum in Siem Reap

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The new $10 million Grand Panorama Museum outside Siem Reap town is being built with funding from North Korea. Photograph: Thik Kaliyann

The new $10 million Grand Panorama Museum outside Siem Reap town is being built with funding from North Korea. Photograph: Thik Kaliyann

For more than a year, mystery has shrouded a museum in Siem Reap. The facts have been few and the details sparse. What’s known is that a North Korean company invested about $10 million for construction, and that artists from the hermit kingdom flew in to paint and sculpt.

But what exactly they were planning remained uncertain. Officials provided boilerplate descriptions, and journalists who visited the site during the construction stage were waved away or barred from entering. Restrictions, however, seem to have eased, and on a recent visit, a Post reporter got a glimpse of what’s being called the Grand Panorama Museum.

“It will attract a lot of visitors, and it will show the world about Khmer culture and history,” said Kim Sromoul, a construction manager with a flair for marketing and promotion. While walking around the site, he paused at a looming portrait of a smiling Buddha. He pointed at it and noted that it “looks like a photo, but it isn’t”. “It is a painting drawn by North Korean artists, and it is the smile of Avalokiteshvara, or ‘Lord who looks down’, who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas.”

You don’t often hear “North Korean” and “compassion” together in the same sentence. But little is normal about the museum except its traditional iconography. Visitors to the sprawling site, located about three kilometers from the city of Siem Reap, beside the grounds of a new ticketing office for the world-famous Angkor Archaeological Park, will be greeted by a Naga guardian head at the entrance.

Once inside, there are panels showing the geographical layout of Siem Reap and the temple complexes, and a 3-D show explaining stone cutting and transportation.

The centrepiece of the Grand Panorama Museum is, not surprisingly, a grand panorama.

Financed by Mansudae, the North Korean construction firm that has an arts arm specialising in overseas projects, the panorama is a detailed mosaic roughly 120 metres long and 13 metres high. Three portions of the painting depict battle, construction and daily life around the time that Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century.

“The North Korean painters, hundreds of them, they painted the three main episodes,” said Chuch Phoeurn, secretary of state for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, in a telephone interview. “The first one is the battle of the reign of King Jayavarman VII, the second one is the establishment of the Bayon temple, the Angkor temple, and the last one is the daily life of the people in the Angkorian period.”

Asked if Phoeurn saw anything askew with North Koreans painting paeans to a history that they don’t share, he pointed to other international projects in Siem Reap, adding that Cambodians from the Royal University of Fine Arts contributed to the panorama.

“In the area of the Angkor complex, there are different kinds of museums – there are museums held by the government of India, there is a museum held by a Japanese NGO, and [at] the other museum, the National Museum in Siem Reap, artists of the Thai people co-operated with the Royal Government,” he said.

“So for us and North Korea in this area, we share the experiences between the North Korean artists and the Khmer artists to build up this panorama museum.”

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A painting of one of the faces of Avalokiteshvara at Bayon temple is displayed near the entrance to the Grand Panorama Museum. Photograph: Thik Kaliyann/Phnom Penh Post

Virtually all of the public artwork on display in North Korea is produced by some of the 4,000 employees of Pyongyang-based Mansudae Art Studio, according to an official gallery website that contains the names of hundreds of artists.

Among the structures pieced together on home turf is a 20-metre bronze statue of Kim Il-sung; the 170-metre Juche Tower, hailed as the tallest stone tower in the world; and mosaics adorning subway stations in Pyongyang.

But the Grand Panorama Museum hardly represents the first time that Mansudae has travelled abroad. According to the Daily North Korea news website, the company has also built highly controversial – and highly lucrative – monuments and public works in several African countries, including Angola, Namibia, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo, netting more than $150 million in government contracts.

As with the North Korean Pyongyang restaurants and the handful of other businesses dotting the Kingdom, it is believed Mansudae profits are all funnelled back to the government in North Korea, where the company got its start in the late 1950s.

In Africa, the structures follow the studio’s bigger-is-better mantra.

Though independence and revolutionary monuments built in the style of social realism seem to make up the core of the company’s efforts, it has also erected sports stadiums, military museums, and presidential offices.

The museum in Siem Reap appears to fall somewhere in the middle. It trumpets a long gone golden era of Cambodia’s history while operating as a practical place open to millions of tourists who visit Angkor Wat every year.

Anyone familiar with the museum is sparing with details, including the most key one for visitors, the opening date, which a Ministry of Culture official placed near the end of April. A North Korean Embassy representative contacted by phone said he did not know much about the museum, and hung up. Bun Narith, the general director of the organisation overseeing Angkor Wat, said dryly that the Grand Panorama Museum would play an important role in explaining to visitors about Cambodia’s Angkorian history.

So why did the North Koreans build it in the first place? Analysts fell back on the historically close ties between North Korea and Cambodia. The late King Father Norodom Sihanouk enjoyed his own palatial residence in Pyongyang, and, according to political analyst Chea Vannath, King Sihanouk was once protected by a crew of North Korean bodyguards.

“Maybe this is to have a counterbalance with the South Korean influence in Cambodia, because everybody knows worldwide that King Father Norodom Sihanouk was the best friend of Kim Il-sung, and they had a long-lasting friendship,” she said, adding that the museum would also be a version of soft diplomacy from a country that is more known for its human rights abuses than its artwork. “It’s to show another angle of North Korea.”

 The royal relationship theory made sense to Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at New South Wales University in Australia. Thayer said in an email that Sihanouk could retreat to his Pyongyang palace when he wanted to escape political pressure back home. But it remains a theory, one among many.

“Perhaps the current leadership wishes to keep alive their version of this legacy. It is sheer speculation on my part, but perhaps someone in or close to the royal family tossed up the idea first and/or encouraged the North Koreans. Finally, perhaps the North Koreans have some admiration for Hun Sen’s leadership style and foreign policy,” he said.

“As with all things North Korean, outsiders can but look through a dark glass and imagine what they think they see.”

 

To contact the reporter on this story: Thik Kaliyann at newsroom@phnompenhpost.com
 

Joe Freeman at joseph.freeman@phnompenhpost.com

 

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