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A museum for Cambodian culture – North Korean style

A museum for Cambodian culture – North Korean style

It’s kind of worrisome ... It’s almost like asking the former Khmer Rouge to portray Cambodian history

Siem Reap province
A North Korean construction company is set to build and operate a US$10 million Cambodian culture museum in Siem Reap town. The museum will join a scarce number of North Korean businesses in the Kingdom, which experts say largely exist to funnel cash to the secretive state’s government.

The company behind the project has been named locally as Mansudae Corporation, a North Korean construction firm. It has built monuments in countries such as Senegal, Namibia and Angola and experts say its overseas operations appear to be increasing.

“I think they [Mansudae] are reasonably successful. We don’t have access to any of their financial records but the number of these sorts of projects continues to grow,” said Curtis Melvin, founder of the website North Korean Economy Watch.

While some of Mansudae’s former projects – almost entirely based in developing nations – have met with opposition, few Siem Reap residents seem to be aware of its Cambodian project.

During a visit to the site by The Phnom Penh Post last week, two North Korean workers said they work for Mansudae Corporation and had been in Siem Reap since June 1. A Cambodian security guard at a neighbouring construction site said up to 20 Korean workers had been present on the nearly empty plot.

The museum site is located about three kilometres from the city of Siem Reap, beside the grounds of a new ticketing office – also under construction – for the world-famous Angkor Wat Archaeological Park. Survey equipment, steel framing and fencing posts were on the site last Tuesday morning, but there was little other evidence of construction.

The finished cultural museum will be owned and operated by the North Korean company, said Youn Heng, director of the Evaluation and Incentive Department for Cambodian Investment at the Council for the Development of Cambodia, although he declined to confirm the corporation involved.

The Cambodian government approved a North Korean company’s US$10 million investment earlier this year, Youn Heng said.

Like the North Korean restaurants operating in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, experts believe Mansudae’s investment will be a source of funding for the cash-strapped nation.

“The main objective is economic: to raise hard currency. I don’t think they [North Korea] care much about making a political statement,” Melvin said.

“Looking at many of their [Mansudae] projects, you would never know they were being built by North Koreans unless you were told.”

While the two Koreas once battled for diplomatic presence in Asia, those days are largely over, said William Newcomb, a former senior advisor to the US Treasury Department. North Korea has cut back dramatically on funding for its overseas influence. Its budget is simply too tight, he said.

North Korean leverage, however, cannot be overlooked in Cambodia. The Pyongyang government still exercises “significant, quiet influence” in the Kingdom, Newcomb said.

Cambodia has seen high-level exchanges with North Korea since 2000.

North Korea’s minister of foreign affairs visited the Kingdom in July 2000, according to a statement from the Royal Embassy of Cambodia in North Korea.

The president of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly visited in 2001 and, during the visits, the two countries agreed to “further expand and strengthen their bilateral cooperation” in fields such as economics and culture, according to the statement.

Economic relations with North Korea are often cause for concern among human rights activists. Allowing a North Korean firm to operate in the Kingdom – and ostensibly fund the Kim Jong Il regime – is disconcerting, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, from Thailand.

“It’s kind of worrisome that the Cambodian government would allow a country with one of the world’s worst human-rights records to portray their heritage … It’s almost like asking the former Khmer Rouge to portray Cambodian history,” Robertson said.

The museum was also source of unease to the few South Korean residents aware of the scheme, who expressed their discomfort to The Post following a period of rough relations between the two communities last late year.

The North Korean bombing of a South Korean island in November 2010 caused tension among Korean business owners in Siem Reap, one South Korean restaurant owner said. At the time, South Koreans were advised against visiting Siem Reap’s North Korean restaurants.

A representative from Apsara, the government body that manages Angkor and Siem Reap, said the two countries’ peoples can live peacefully in Cambodia.

“We recognise there are a lot of North Koreans and South Koreans living and doing business in this province. But there have been no disputes or confrontations like they have had in their own country,” Tan Sombon, deputy director general of Apsara, said.

Problems have arisen at other Mansudae sites. Some Senegalese took issue with the construction of the African Renaissance Monument, which Mansudae built in Dakar, Senegal in 2010.

Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow said he petitioned against the monument’s construction because hiring a corporation from an undemocratic country reflected poorly on his homeland.

The monument, the tallest in Africa at about 50-metres high, failed to capture the spirit of the African Renaissance due to its Stalinist appearance, Sow said from Paris.

“It represents absolutely nothing and its symbolism is absolutely zero,” he said.

In Siem Reap, the museum is virtually unknown.

Workers at tourism information centres in the visitor hub were unaware of the North Korean museum, as were members of the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Siem Reap’s South Korean Association.
The North Korean Embassy in Cambodia declined to comment on Mansudae’s project in Siem Reap.

A spokesperson from the South Korean Embassy in Cambodia said North Korean investment was unrelated to South Korean relations with the Kingdom.