SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - North Korea’s much-delayed museum in Cambodia, one of the reclusive state’s allies in Asia, is now open to the public, but questions as to its true purpose remain.
The Angkor Panorama Museum, built and paid for by North Korea’s state-owned Mansudae Overseas Project in cooperation with Cambodia’s APSARA Authority, opened last month to much fanfare.
Many visiting the museum are no doubt curious why North Korea spent tens of millions of dollars on the tourist attraction. Was it to earn foreign currency, to enhance North Korea’s political stature, or simply to showcase the North’s technology?
Yit Chandaroat, deputy chief of the museum, said he could see no other reason than seizing a business opportunity, citing the ever-increasing flow of foreign tourists visiting the Angkor Wat temple complex located nearby.
However, he did not rule out North Korea having the diplomatic motive of seeking to maintain its good ties with Cambodia and increase its footprint in Siem Reap well beyond two restaurants named Pyongyang.
The museum may also serve to promote North Korea’s identity, with visitors able to talk to North Korean women working inside, view paintings that depict the North’s mountain views and sample its ginseng tea.
According to Yit Chandaroat, more than 20 North Korean staffers are working there, including a dozen females.
Kim Son Hyo, a marketing assistant, said she has been in Cambodia for six months in an expected three-year employment at the museum. When asked how the museum could earn a profit, she replied in fluent English, “Rome could not be built in one day.”
Only about 30 people visit the museum per day so far, with a ticket price of $15 for foreigners and $8 for Cambodians.
At the inauguration ceremony on Dec. 4, 2015, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who is in charge of the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap, said Mansudae Overseas Project will operate the museum with the Cambodian government for 10 years. It took four years to complete.
“I believe that the decision to construct the Angkor Panorama Museum in Siem Reap is the right decision, since Siem Reap-Angkor is one of the most popular tourist attractions not only in Cambodia, but also in the region and beyond,” Sok An said at the time.
Sok An, meanwhile, emphasized that the investment will help maintain the momentum of good relations and even further strengthen these relations between the two countries.
“The investment by Mansudae contributes not only to the socioeconomic development in Cambodia, particularly the development of tourism industry in Siem Reap-Angkor region, but also to the further strengthening of the friendship and cooperation between the two nations,” he added.
The museum is meticulously conceived and realized with high creativity using North Korean technology. It reflects various themes through paintings and 3-D movies depicting the evolution of the Khmer Empire, war scenes, temple constructions and the daily life of the people.
Mansudae became actively engaged in the overseas building of monuments and memorials just over two decades ago, mainly in Africa countries such as Namibia, Angola and Botswana. The African Renaissance Monument in Senegal is one of its outstanding achievements, and the company until recently had expanded projects in China and Malaysia.
In Cambodia, the museum is the largest of its kind. Since the project began in August 2011, there had been discussions raised by some Cambodians and South Koreans. They wonder if the project is meant to counterbalance South Korea’s growing presence in Cambodia or if it is simply to mark the “friendship” between deceased Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk and Kim Il Sung, the late founder of North Korea.
Some familiar with the project said the North first wanted to showcase its own culture and images, but the plan was rejected until the North Koreans agreed to incorporate Cambodia’s cultural values.
The museum was first estimated to cost $17 million but finally cost more than $24 million.
A total of 63 North Korean experts were attached to the project to bring forth the drawings and paintings. They were watched closely, and changes were demanded by the Cambodian experts.
Cambodia has mostly been a staunch North Korean ally since Sihanouk and Kim Il Sung met in 1961 at a Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Belgrade.
When Sihanouk was toppled in a coup in 1970, Kim offered him asylum and a palatial retreat near Pyongyang and then supplied him with personal bodyguards from 1993 until 2004, when Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his son, King Norodom Sihamoni.
Sihanouk, in return, provided North Korea his own birth home in Phnom Penh as an embassy and in 2005 he wrote that Kim was his “surest and most sincere friend and the most steadfast in my support. Even more than a friend, a true brother and my only ‘true relative’ after the death of my mother.”
In 1993, when Sihanouk returned to the throne after years in exile, North Korea was among the first countries to rush to Phnom Penh to sign economic, trade, industry and agriculture pacts with Cambodia, but it never implemented them until 2011, just before Cambodia assumed the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2012.
Now relations between the two nations are good, although not as good as they were before.