North Korea’s museum outpost in Angkor – Nikkei Asian Review/RTÉ World Report

RTE – radio version, broadcast on March 25 2017

The Angkor Panorama Museum seen from the main road outside (Simon Roughneen)

Despite UN sanctions on Pyongyang, Cambodia insists it is in compliance

SIEM REAP — For an art production house based in North Korea, whose usual stock-in-trade is nationalist-communist propaganda, constructing a museum in Cambodia to celebrate the grandeur of the Khmer Empire might seem a surprising project.

While North Korea may be on the verge of a rapprochement with the U.S. ahead of the proposed meeting between its dictator Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, recent sanctions imposed on the country in response to its missile tests could raise questions about the status of the Angkor Panorama Museum, which opened in late 2015 at a cost of $24 million and sits on the doorstep of the vast Angkor temple complex.

When the United Nations Security Council enacted sanctions against North Korea in 2017 in response to its missile tests, it said that states “shall prohibit, by their nationals or in their territories, the opening, maintenance, and operation of all joint ventures or cooperative entities, new and existing, with DPRK entities or individuals.”

That suggests Cambodia, other than requesting an opt-out from the council, would be required to close the North Korean-built museum or ensure that it is now fully locally owned.

“Cambodia is required by UNSC sanctions measures to close the joint venture or request an exemption,” said William Newcomb of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

A detailed model of the Angkor temple complex inside the Angkor Panorama Museum (Simon Roughneen)

Asked if the museum is in accordance with U.N. requirements, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan told the Nikkei Asian Review that “Cambodia has fully complied with the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea.”

The Mansudae Art Studio, which built the museum, and the Mansudae Overseas Projects arm are also on the U.S. list of North Korean sanctioned entities. The U.S. Treasury Department said the Angkor Panorama Museum could itself be listed if it was shown that North Korean ownership exceeds 50%.

According to previous accounts given to media outlets by the museum management, profits from Angkor Panorama either go to North Korea until 2025 or are being split 50-50 until then between Mansudae and the Apsara National Authority, the Cambodian government agency that manages Angkor Wat and co-runs the museum.

Requests for clarification about the current status of the museum were sent to Mansudae and Apsara, as well as the museum’s front desk, but all messages went unanswered.

Even during the rainy season, Angkor Wat is usually thronged with visitors (Simon Roughneen)

The Mansudae Overseas Projects division is said to raise money for the North Korean government through its monument-building abroad. Perhaps best known for the colossal African Renaissance Monument in Senegal, Mansudae Overseas Projects was subject to an asset freeze in a U.N. Security Council resolution passed last August.

Art remains exempt from sanctions, however, meaning that it appears North Korea can continue to generate what revenue it can from the paintings it sells around the world, some of which hang on the walls inside the Angkor Panorama Museum.

North Korea-Cambodia ties go back to a friendship forged in the 1960s between Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s formal name, and Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who was once protected by a team of North Korean bodyguards and was gifted a palace outside Pyongyang.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s official title — “Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen” — roughly translates as “Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander” and stacks up well beside any of the flowery epithets that North Korea’s leaders have applied to themselves.

Wall sculptures at the Bayon Temple, part of the Angkor temple complex outside Siem Reap (Simon Roughneen)

Just as Mansudae Art Studio and Mansudae Overseas Projects branched out beyond their typical output to build the Angkor Panorama Museum beside the temple complex near Siem Reap, they arguably surprised those who expected the museum to be no more than shouty political propaganda.

Displayed prominently inside the building is an intricate 1:230 scale model of the ancient complex as it looked in the 12th century — the zenith of Khmer power and an era when Angkor was possibly the world’s biggest city.

Siem Reap is now home to around 200,000 people, and its downtown is a medley of backpacker pubs, hipster coffee shops and street hawkers whose brusque mien suggests that if they saw neither a backpacker nor a hipster again it would not be a day too soon.

But most of Siem Reap’s tourists go not to haggle with hawkers but to see the ruins of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Almost 2.5 million visitors visited last year, according Angkor Enterprise, the agency that manages ticket sales.

The Angkor Panorama Museum sits beside the main booth before entering the temples themselves, a location that should maximize visitor numbers. “It depends, some days a lot, some days less,” a guide responded when asked if the museum is usually busy.

Street vendors near the main nightlife area in Siem Reap (Simon Roughneen)

Inside the museum, a short animated movie about the Angkor era is shown on a screen inside a 240-seat cinema, about the only nod to propaganda of any kind to be found in the building.

Over the sound of cascading water and the clanging of hammers and anvils, a narrator booms that the film “was produced on the basis of historical facts,” adding, over a swelling Wagnerian score, that it shows “all sorts of happenings in the royal palace and important events in the empire.”

A souvenir shop beside the cinema is ready for spend-happy tourists and an abundance of mostly naturalist-style North Korean paintings — all for sale — hang on the museum’s interior walls.

But the museum’s centerpiece, in every sense, is a 123-meter circular mural at the heart of the building that depicts life around Angkor at the apex of Khmer imperial power. The painting’s title: “Angkor — the Age of Prosperity.”

It took 63 artists nearly a year and a half to finish the 13-meter-high diorama, with its wraparound 3-D perspective taking in images of 45,000 people — the multitudes working, eating, socializing or in battle. Most of the dramas unfolding as the visitor circles the room were inspired by the real thing.

“All the story we copy from the Bayon Temple,” the guide said, referring to one of the main temples near Angkor Wat itself, known for its detailed bas-reliefs of daily Khmer life and the huge smiling Buddha faces carved onto its walls.

Lotus farms line the road between Siem Reap and Tonle Sap Lake, about a half hour’s drive from the town (Simon Roughneen)

A few minutes later, as the rain slammed into the empty carpark outside the museum front door, a group of around 20 Chinese tourists ambled in from a bus that pulled as close to the door as it could get without vehicle and building exchanging paint jobs.

Most of the visitors to the museum are Chinese — underscoring the growing relations between Cambodia and its biggest investment source, China, which is also North Korea’s main trading partner. Just over 900,000 of the 2.5 million visitors to Angkor Wat last year were Chinese, and China’s Yunnan Development Group is building a new international airport near Siem Reap in anticipation of a Chinese-driven tourism boom in the coming years.

This tour group did not stay long, however, skipping the movie and moving on quickly to the Angkor temples — leaving just three visitors nosing around the building. “This is the low season, it is rainy,” the guide said, watching the visitors as they headed down the road for the temples.

The group’s hasty exit raised an important point: For all the technical and aesthetic excellence on display at the museum, a visitor might be left wondering, “What’s the point?”

It feels more like an elaborate guide complex and art market than a museum. Shutterbugs can quibble, too, as visitors are not allowed to photograph the immense central diorama that is the highlight of any visit. And there is also the question of whether visiting the museum means funding a sanctioned pariah state.

And, impressive as they are in themselves, the central diorama and scale models hardly rival the real museum pieces outside: the temples themselves, just a short tuk-tuk drive away.


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