Malaysia-North Korea ties symbolised by rice museum

Huge murals on Malaysia's National Rice Museum (above) were painted by 60 visiting North Korean artists in 2004. The complex resembles bushels of harvested rice, with paddy stalk motifs on the upper reaches of the building.
Huge murals on Malaysia's National Rice Museum (above) were painted by 60 visiting North Korean artists in 2004. The complex resembles bushels of harvested rice, with paddy stalk motifs on the upper reaches of the building.PHOTOS: NATIONAL RICE MUSEUM, LESLIE LOPEZ
Huge murals on Malaysia's National Rice Museum (above) were painted by 60 visiting North Korean artists in 2004. The complex resembles bushels of harvested rice, with paddy stalk motifs on the upper reaches of the building.
Huge murals on Malaysia's National Rice Museum were painted by 60 visiting North Korean artists in 2004. The complex resembles bushels of harvested rice, with paddy stalk motifs on the upper reaches of the building.PHOTOS: NATIONAL RICE MUSEUM, LESLIE LOPEZ

N. Korean artists behind $3.5m murals in Kedah attraction

Nestled among the rice paddies that stretch as far as the eye can see in the northern reaches of peninsular Malaysia is a three-storey circular-shaped complex with walls that offer a rare glimpse into Malaysia's deep ties with North Korea.

The National Rice Museum not only features local farming practices, rice-milling engineering and the different crop seedlings found in Malaysia. Its main attraction is the huge murals depicting farming life in Malaysia's northern Kedah state that were painted by 60 visiting state-funded North Korean artists in 2004.

"The artists spent two years living in villages in the area as part of their research before completing their paintings in six months," the museum's guest relations officer Syamsuri Leman told The Sunday Times during a recent visit.

Mr Syamsuri, sporting the traditional Malay outfit of a fitting tunic and a short sarong wrapped over his trousers, said he was unaware why the North Koreans were picked for the job that cost the Kedah state government RM11 million (S$3.5 million).

"But they are very good at this. There are only two other places in the world where this group has done this work, Hawaii and North Korea," he said.

  • 60

    Number of North Korean artists who painted the huge murals in Malaysia's National Rice Museum.

    2

    Number of years they spent living in villages in northern Kedah state as part of their research.

    6

    Number of months the artists took to finish the paintings.

The museum, located next to a limestone outcrop called Gunung Keriang some 9km from the capital city of Alor Setar in Kedah, is not a major attraction because of its remote location.

But the facility, which cost RM23.8 million (S$7.5 million) to build, is emerging as tangible evidence of Kuala Lumpur's decades-old, but little publicised, relations with the secretive regime.

Those ties have now turned hostile following the killing of Mr Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, on Malaysian soil.

"Malaysians are preoccupied with domestic issues because of our endless politicking. But the problem with North Korea has dragged us into the international stage and many Malaysians are beginning to question the government about who we are close with," said Mr Ibrahim Suffian of polling outfit Merdeka Centre.

The Malaysian government has always been coy about the country's ties with North Korea, which were established in 1973. It was only last week that many Malaysians discovered that the Mahathir administration first allowed visa-free travel for visiting North Koreans in 2000. Kuala Lumpur revoked that luxury last week.

Why Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's government moved to upgrade relations with North Korea is not clear.

But the warming of relations coincided with the time when the premier's international standing had been severely undercut by his sacking of his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim and his government's imposition of capital controls to shield the battered economy.

Malaysian intelligence officials say that many North Koreans took advantage of the visa-free travel to Malaysia in order to set up businesses to earn hard foreign currency to be repatriated back.

"In the early years, there was close surveillance on the North Koreans operating here. But as the numbers grew and (our) resources stretched, it became more difficult," said one senior retired Malaysian intelligence officer.

Government officials estimate that there could be as many as 1,000 North Korean citizens residing in Malaysia. Many run restaurants or convenience stores, are employed in information technology, or work as labourers in coal mines and shipyards in the east Malaysian state of Sarawak.

In downtown Kuala Lumpur at Koryo Restaurant, North Korean waitresses double as performers, singing in a band reminiscent of their southern counterpart's 1980s version of K-pop. The restaurant was shut in the aftermath of Mr Kim's murder but reopened last week. It practises a strict policy of no photo- or video-taking, with staff politely asking customers to delete images from their phones.

Malaysia has also accepted dozens of North Korean students, who are mostly enrolled in Kuala Lumpur's Help University. The private university awarded an honorary doctorate to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2013. According to students who spoke to The Sunday Times, North Korean students are incredibly private, identifying themselves only as Koreans, leaving many to presume they are from the South.

Police sources said North Korean businessmen were also active in underworld operations, such as running massage parlours and smuggling rings that traded in animal contraband and military equipment.

"North Korean embassies were required to be self-sufficient, so they were very close with their countrymen who were operating businesses," said a senior Malaysian police official, who requested anonymity.

That 60 North Korean artists spent over two years at the National Rice Museum came as a surprise to the serving police officer and the retired intelligence officer interviewed for this article.

One Kedah state government official said that the mural contract was awarded to North Koreans in 2002 as a gesture to show Malaysia's sincerity in forging closer ties with Pyongyang.

The National Rice Museum in Dr Mahathir's home state of Kedah looks incongruous among the thatched huts and paddy fields. Covering over 12,000 sq m, the architecture of the complex symbolises bushels of harvested rice, with paddy stalk motifs decorating the upper reaches of the building .

On the third storey lies a panoramic mural, rising 8m high and 103m around, of local farming life. Here, the North Korean artists have depicted slices of life that are central to the propaganda of their isolated regime: healthy, smiling children scampering among contented-looking adults in an idyllic sun-dappled village, surrounded by lush greenery.

•With additional reporting by Trinna Leong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline 'Rice museum paints picture of once-close ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe