The North Korean mission to Cambodia sits on a major thoroughfare in the capital Phnom Penh, in the shadow of a lavish mansion belonging to the country’s Prime Minister Hun Sen. There are usually few signs of life behind the tinted windows of the pale pink embassy building, which only rarely admits visitors. Last month, however, the mission hosted a delegation from Pyongyang led by North Korean Deputy Trade Minister Ri Myong San. The official visit was relatively innocuous – Ri spoke with Cambodian officials about the expansion of economic ties – but the rare public appearance of a North Korean official underscored the curious friendship between Cambodia and the reclusive communist regime.
The unique relationship between the two countries dates back to 1965, when Indonesian President Sukarno introduced North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung to Cambodia’s mercurial Prince Norodom Sihanouk at a non-aligned summit in Jakarta. At first glance, the Mao-suited ‘Great Leader’ and the urbane Cambodian monarch seemed cut from different cloth, but the pair quickly established an amity that bound their two nations into a close partnership.
As a favour to Kim, Sihanouk withheld recognition of the South Korean government until his ouster in a US-backed coup in 1970; after his overthrow, North Korea transferred its recognition to the resistance front headed by Sihanouk from his exile in Beijing. Nine years later, when the murderous Khmer Rouge regime was toppled and replaced by a Vietnamese proxy government, Pyongyang continued to recognise a resistance coalition that included Sihanouk.
Julio A. Jeldres, Sihanouk’s official biographer, said the amity between Sihanouk and Kim was unique in that it wasn’t predicated on ‘ideology, strategic or trade interests.’ The relationship was based ‘purely on the friendship between the two leaders and the support they gave to each other during difficult times,’ he said.
Indeed, Kim spared little expense in making the exiled monarch feel at home during his frequent visits to North Korea. In 1974, the North Korean military put the finishing touches on a 60-room Korean-style palace for Sihanouk at Changsuwon, a picturesque lake about 45 minutes drive from Pyongyang. In his book Three Days in the Hermit Kingdom, American Eddie Burdick wrote that from the sky the palace was ‘oddly reminiscent of the main complex at Angkor Wat,’ set among hills ‘peppered with military installations of various types – including numerous surface-to-air missile batteries.’
Between 1979 and 1991 Sihanouk spent at least two months a year at Changsuwon, Jeldres said, maintaining a tight schedule of ‘drafting statements, correspondence, book writing, audiences to foreign diplomats and visiting journalists.’ In between film shoots and games of badminton, Sihanouk was attended upon by a ‘very devoted’ Korean staff, and was given everything necessary for his political work in Cambodia. When Sihanouk returned to Cambodia as King in 1991, he was accompanied by a squad of North Korean presidential bodyguards. (‘I was overthrown by my own royal guards,’ he told Reuters in 1994. ‘I am better protected by 25 North Koreans from the Democratic Republic of Korea [sic].’)
Cambodia-North Korea relations were so dependent on the friendship of the two leaders that it naturally began to wane after Kim Il-Sung died in 1994 and Sihanouk abdicated the Cambodian throne in 2004. Son Soubert, a high privy councillor to current King Norodom Sihamoni, said the Royal Palace still sends flowers to the North Korean embassy on important occasions, but that the 88-year-old Sihanouk’s visits to Changsuwon have become rare. ‘With (Kim Il-Sung’s) son Kim Jong-Il he still keeps a good relationship, but he doesn’t go as frequently as during Kim Il-Sung’s time,’ he said. According to a leaked US diplomat cable from 2006, one Cambodian diplomat suggested his country’s ‘special relationship’ with North Korea was ‘no longer as unique as it once was.’