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Cambodia's Stunning Angkor Panorama Museum...Built by North Koreans

Last month, Cambodia opened the doors to a brand-new Angkorian attraction.

Among its exhibits, the Angkor Panorama Museum features a 360-degree painted cyclorama covering the area of nearly four basketball courts, reports the New York Times.

But while this lavish tribute to the Khmer empire may be a celebration of all things Cambodian, nearly everything – from the money to the concept, design to artwork – came from North Korea.

The folks behind this ambitious museum project are an army of skilled artists employed through the DPRK's largest art studio, Mansudae. Over a four-month period, 63 artists flown in directly from North Korea were tasked with completing the enormous panorama, while the company itself invested a substantial amount of money into the project.

Yit Chandaroat, acting director of museums for Apsara, Cambodia's government organization responsible for the management of Angkor Wat, felt the project was in good hands with his DPRK collaborators. Apsara initially chose to go through with the project in order to diversify Angkor Wat's attractions and hopefully minimize the impact mass tourism was having on the area's hallowed temples.

“Mansudae has great talent and a good reputation in artwork, painting and construction,” Chandaroat told the New York Times.

While this all seems pretty bizarre, Cambodia and North Korea are actually quite close, thanks in large part to a platonic love affair between the latter's former Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung and King Sihanouk of Cambodia, who once referred to Il-sung as “more than a friend, more than a brother”, according to the Times. In fact, the pair were so tight that in the 1970s, Il-sung gifted King Sihanouk a palace in Pyongyang, where he later spent a few months each year in addition to writing and directing several North Korean films in his spare time.

Since the 1990s, Mansudae has been attempting to gain more business beyond its borders, completing monuments and other projects all over the world, from the Middle East and Africa to Southeast Asia. Particularly in latter two regions, governments prefer the art studio, as it's able to complete large-scale projects at minimal cost.

Within North Korea, the company also enjoys a coveted position in the art world: Mansudae is the only art studio permitted to depict the Kim family, erecting monuments of the Supreme Leaders all over the country.

Nicholas Bonner, founder of the Beijing-based gallery Koryo Studio, keeps a close business relationship with Mansudae. According to the Times, he views the Angkor museum as a money-making effort.

“I don’t see this museum as an attempt to project soft power,” Bonner told the Times. “Mansudae is a massive studio, and they need to keep working to bring revenue in from inside and outside of the country.”

Moving forward, the museum's initial proceeds will be collected by Mansudae. After 10 years, both Mansudae and Apsara will share the profits before the handover is complete in a third stage, which sees Apsara taking full control of the facility. At present, the museum averages about 20 tourists a day, with tickets costing US$15 for foreign visitors.

In the future, both parties hope to cash in on the ever-growing number of foreign tourists who visit the Angkor complex. Last year, over 2.5 million foreigners paid a visit to the temples, a 400,000-strong increase from 2000.

[Photo via New York Times]


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