Features | Politics | East Asia

North Korea’s New Friend?

A rare visit by a North Korean official to Cambodia raises the faint prospect of more engagement with Southeast Asia. But ties with Phnom Penh are complicated.

By Sebastian Strangio for
North Korea’s New Friend?
Credit: Uniphoto Press

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.’

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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.’

In his relations with the two Koreas, Hun Sen has hewed to a pragmatic line, pursuing South Korean investment dollars as he tried to deal with the increasingly bizarre and erratic behaviour of the North Koreans. In March 1996, the North Korean mission was found to be harbouring Yoshimi Tanaka, a Japanese national and former member of the hard-left Red Army Faction responsible for the hijacking of a Japan Airlines flight in 1970. According to a Phnom Penh Post report from the time, Tanaka took refuge inside the embassy and was detained while attempting to cross the Vietnamese border in a diplomatic vehicle. He was found in possession of three fake North Korean passports and $40,000 in counterfeit US currency. Following the scandal Hun Sen expelled two North Korean diplomats and forced Sihanouk to relent on his opposition to formal ties with Seoul, which were established the following year.

Another embarrassment involved the Cambodia Shipping Corporation (CSC), a private shipping registry that Hun Sen shut down in July 2002 after a series of shady incidents involving North Korean ships flying Cambodian ‘flags of convenience.’ In June, one such ship was stopped off the coast of West Africa carrying a massive haul of cocaine. Another Cambodian-registered, North Korean-owned vessel, the Song Sang, was intercepted in the Arabian Sea by Spanish marines that December. They uncovered a cargo of ‘15 Scud missiles with 15 conventional warheads, 23 tanks of nitric acid rocket propellant and 85 drums of unidentified chemicals’ – a sinister shipment supposedly bound for Yemen.

Since the early 2000s, the Cambodian government has also worked closely with Seoul to process hundreds of North Korean refugees who arrived seeking political asylum – a highly sensitive issue in North-South relations. According to leaked US diplomatic cables, the Cambodians appeared unconcerned about the effect on ties with North Korea, though one official ‘did register some concern over the PM’s safety due to the proximity of the North Korean Embassy,’ should Cambodian cooperation become public.

North Korea today has few economic interests in Cambodia. The country hosts four restaurants that raise hard currency for Kim Jong-Il’s government, and it recently hired a North Korean design firm, the Mansudae Overseas Project Group, to build and operate a $15 million Cambodian culture museum near Angkor Wat.

But a residual affinity persists. In 2006, South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun asked Cambodia to relay a message of peace to Pyongyang; three years earlier, Cambodia offered to mediate tense talks on the North’s nuclear programme. Could the latest trade mission to Phnom Penh be a small sign that North Korea is seeking a wider engagement in Southeast Asia? As always with North Korea, it’s all guesswork.

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh. His work has appeared in The Economist, Asia Times and The Phnom Penh Post among other publications. He can be reached at [email protected]