North Korea hopes to reap large profits from its new Angkor Panorama Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

  • Visitors view the panorama at the Angkor Panorama Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on February 15, 2016.
  • A detail of the museum's massive painted panorama, which shows scenes of life in ancient Angkorian times.
  • Cambodian officials claim the 123-meter panorama is the biggest painting in East Asia.
  • The interior of the $24 million Angkor Panorama Museum, built by North Korea’s Mansudae Overseas Projects Group. Experts say overseas art projects are a vital source of revenue for the government of North Korea.
  • An outside view of the North Korean-built Angkor Panorama Museum from June 2015, ahead of its official opening in December.
  • North Korean artworks on sale at the Angkor Panorama Museum.
  • Detail from the 11-meter-high painting adorning the entrance of the Angkor Panorama Museum.
  • Statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansudae Hill in Pyongnang -- just two of the works produced by the Mansudae Art Studio.

Siem Reap, Cambodia – Visitors to the Angkor Panorama Museum are greeted by a huge painting of a smiling Buddha – a life-sized reproduction of one of the stone faces that adorns the Bayon temple, near Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat.

But this massive image, stretching 11 metres from floor to ceiling, pales in comparison to the museum’s main attraction – a gigantic panorama which immerses visitors in the glories of the 12th-century Angkorian Empire.

In one section of this 123m-long painting, swarms of workers haul rocks to build the Bayon temple. Nearby an idyllic landscape of forests and lakes gives way to a frenzied battle scene complete with gory disembowelments. In total, the painting includes more than 45,000 human figures.

“You stand here like you are on a mountain,” said Yit Chandaroat, the museum’s director, gazing out towards a distant blue “horizon” where the five towers of Angkor Wat rise from the plain.

Chandaroat said 63 artists toiled for more than a year to complete the panorama, which he claims is the largest painting in East Asia. But the painters weren’t Cambodian; rather, they came from North Korea, which designed, built and bankrolled the $24m project.

Size matters

The Angkor Panorama Museum, which opened its doors in December, is just the latest international project to be completed by Pyongyang’s Mansudae Art Studio – one of the largest art production centres in the world.

Founded in 1959, Mansudae is mostly responsible for producing state propaganda and official statues of the country’s reclusive leaders, including current “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un.

Pier Luigi Cecioni, Mansudae’s representative in Europe and the United States, said that the studio employs some 4,000 people – including around 900 artists – at its Pyongyang headquarters, a sprawling campus filled with workshops, studios and foundries.

“They are the best in the country,” he said. “It’s a great, great honour to work with Mansudae.”

In recent years Mansudae has started taking its gargantuan socialist-style monuments abroad. The studio’s “export” wing, known as the Mansudae Overseas Project Group, has completed dozens of overseas projects, including statues of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, a war memorial in Namibia and a huge embroidered map for the fashion designer Luciano Benetton.

Perhaps its most famous project is the African Renaissance Monument in Senegal, a bronze structure that stands taller than the Statue of Liberty. “Size is important,” said Cecioni. “They are proud that they can do such gigantic things.”

Money maker

Michael Madden, an analyst who edits the North Korea Leadership Watch blog, described Mansudae’s overseas projects as one of Pyongyang’s few competitive exports, and an important source of revenue for the isolated regime. “They are the only ones that are still doing these kinds of things. They’ve sort of cornered the market,” he said.

But the Angkor Panorama Museum, which sits on a dusty road a few kilometres from the Angkor temple complex, may be unique: unlike Mansudae’s other overseas commissions, the museum was conceived of and funded by the North Koreans, who have stayed on to manage the project.

“Normally they build the project and then go home, but this time they’ve kept their staff here,” said a Phnom Penh-based official who is familiar with the project.

Yit Chandaroat said the museum was being jointly run by Mansudae and Apsara, the Cambodian body which manages the Angkor temples. For its first 10 years of operations, the profits will go to the North Koreans. For the next 10 years they will be split 50-50 with Apsara, before the museum reverts to Cambodian government ownership.

“The role of this museum is to preserve our culture,” he said. “Not many countries are investors in culture, but North Korea was interested in that.”

In addition to the panorama, the museum includes a 204-seat movie theatre, a VIP reception room, and scale models of the sprawling Angkor temple complex. A cafe sells Korean-made Insam tea. Nearby, paintings by North Korean artists are on sale.

Chandaroat said 20 North Koreans were currently employed at the museum, including five artists to help to maintain the panorama. He insisted that the project was not intended as a political statement. “The role of this museum is to preserve our culture,” he said. “Not many countries are investors in culture, but North Korea was interested in that.”

This unique joint-venture hints at the historically close ties between Cambodia and North Korea – an outgrowth of the personal friendship between North Korean President Kim Il-Sung and Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who met at an international summit in 1965.

As a gesture of friendship, Sihanouk broke off relations with South Korea. In 1970, when the prince was overthrown in a coup, Kim built him a palatial residence north of Pyongyang. Between 1991 and 2004 Sihanouk was also protected by a squad of granite-faced North Korean bodyguards – another gift from Kim.

The relationship has faded since the death of Kim in 1994 and Sihanouk in 2012, but an echo remains. The North Korean embassy still occupies a prime plot in Phnom Penh next door to a mansion belonging to Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen.

North Korea also operates a chain of restaurants – two in Siem Reap, four in the capital – which generate hard currency for the government in Pyongyang.

Given the unique relationship of the two countries, Madden said it was unsurprising that North Korea would choose Cambodia as a testing ground for a new type of business venture. “It might be a legacy thing for the North Koreans to do this, and make them some money,” he said.

The unprecedented nature of the museum project also suggests that it enjoys backing at the highest echelons of the North Korean government.

“You would have to be within the personal apparatus of the Supreme Leader in order to make something like this actually happen, and have it be effective,” Madden said.

Who benefits?

It remains unclear where the revenue from the museum will go, with human rights groups raising concerns that it will help circumvent international sanctions and prop up one of the world’s most repressive governments.

The official with knowledge of the project said that when it was being negotiated, the North Koreans wanted to incorporate the museum’s $15 admission price into the day-passes tourists buy to access the Angkor temples, but Cambodia declined.

“If that happened they would’ve got huge amounts of money,” the official said. Around 2.1 million people visited Angkor last year, according to Apsara.

But for now, the museum seems to be struggling to attract tourists. On a recent visit, lights were switched off to conserve power, while bored staff padded across the marble floors. Outside, a poster advertised half-price admission for Cambodian visitors.

In the empty cafe, a young North Korean woman manned the cash register. When asked if the museum could turn a profit, she responded in fluent, American-accented English. “There are not so many visitors because we’ve just opened,” she said, “but soon people will learn about us.”

Published by Al Jazeera English, February 22, 2016