Pyongyang's artful diplomacy with allies

A painting at the Angkor Panorama Museum in Siem Reap province. The museum, built by North Korea and costing $33 million, is the latest in a growing portfolio by the North's state-owned Mansudae Art Studio - which churns out propaganda pieces - overseas.
A painting at the Angkor Panorama Museum in Siem Reap province. The museum, built by North Korea and costing $33 million, is the latest in a growing portfolio by the North's state-owned Mansudae Art Studio - which churns out propaganda pieces - overseas. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It is exporting its 'monumental art' to countries like Cambodia

SIEM REAP • In a vast parking lot outside Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat temples complex stands a new museum built by North Korea, part of a lucrative charm offensive by a hermit state exporting its monumental art to a handful of foreign allies.

"When people come here sometimes they cannot believe their eyes," beams Mr Yit Chandaroat, of the Angkor Panorama Museum, which opened in December after a construction process shrouded in secrecy. "They really feel like they are back in the time of Angkor", he added, referring to the world heritage site which comprises the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, dating from the ninth to the 15th centuries.

Behind him stands the museum's piece de resistance, an enormous 360-degree panorama that 63 North Korean painters from the state-owned Mansudae Art Studio toiled away on for more than a year. The mural, epic in scale and intricate in detail, covers an area larger than eight tennis courts and reflects the sweeping grandiosity for which Pyongyang's artists are renowned.

But this is no socialist realist tribute to North Korea's "Dear Leaders". Instead, the paintings portray the battles of the fearsome Khmer Empire at the apogee of its power in the 11th and 13th centuries and the construction of Angkor Wat.

That a closed, hardline communist state might choose to build a museum honouring a feudal Southeast Asian dynasty - and foot the US$24 million (S$32.6 million) price tag - may initially appear surprising. But Cambodia has long belonged to a select and somewhat motley band of North Korean allies.

When the country's late King Norodom Sihanouk was toppled in a 1970 coup, North Korea's founding leader Kim Il Sung offered him sanctuary. And when King Sihanouk returned after the bloodletting of the Khmer Rouge era, he kept a retinue of North Korean bodyguards for the remainder of his reign and gifted his birth home to Pyongyang for its envoy.

The North's nemesis, South Korea, has also dramatically increased its business presence in Cambodia and its embassy in Phnom Penh remains a haven for North Korean defectors to aim for. But Cambodia's relations with the North remain strong even as Pyongyang deepens its pariah status with nuclear and missile tests that triggered a fresh round of tough United Nations sanctions earlier this month.

"Those family connections are not to be underestimated on the North Korean side in terms of the affection that the Kim family have for Cambodia specifically," said Dr Adam Cathcart, a North Korea specialist at Britain's Leeds University.

The museum is also more than a friendly gesture. It is the latest in a growing portfolio of artworks that Mansudae has built overseas. With 1,000 artists on the books the studio is often described as the world's largest. It churns out propaganda pieces and has long been the only outlet allowed to produce portraits of the Kim dynasty.

The majority of its overseas work has been in Africa but it has picked up clients elsewhere, including the German city of Frankfurt who decided Mansudae's artists were the only ones skilled enough to faithfully recreate a 1910 art deco fountain. Dr Koen de Ceuster, an expert on North Korean art from Leiden University in the Netherlands, says the operation is "very much a business venture".

North Korea will receive profits for the first 10 years of the museum's life and then they will be split for a decade before the museum is fully owned by Cambodia.

And while some tourists may baulk at an attraction that sends hard cash back to North Korea, Mr Chandaroat believes fascination will triumph over censure. "We are not concerned" about political issues, he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'Pyongyang's artful diplomacy with allies'. Print Edition | Subscribe