Cambodia and North Korea had enjoyed a special relationship for decades. Their close ties date back to the height of the Cold War, when this country’s longtime and often troubled monarch and political leader, Norodom Sihanouk, sought Chinese patronage and refuge in Pyongyang.
Sihanouk employed North Korean soldiers as bodyguards, and North Korean restaurants and a traditional dance troupe have served and performed in Phnom Penh. Pyongyang’s embassy enjoys next door neighbor status with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Even the current monarch, Norodom Sihamoni, was partially educated in North Korea.
Normally, North Korean antics and chastisement by the West would have earned a statement of support from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), with stern words about the importance of self-determination, sovereignty, and non-interference in another country’s affairs. Meanwhile, the North Koreans were always quick to support the Cambodians when under regular attack over its human rights record.
But ties between Phnom Penh and Pyongyang do not seem to be quite as chummy these days. This has become more obvious as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un continues his defiance of global opinion with his nuclear program, ballistic missile tests, and the killing of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia.
Last year, Cambodia was among the countries, named by the JoongAng Daily, to which Pyongyang had dispatched assassins with orders to carry out terrorist attacks against North Korean defectors and South Koreans. About 400,000 South Koreans visit Cambodia annually; several thousands live in the country and South Korean businessmen are prominent.
In the middle of last year, North Korean requests for an official visit to Cambodia, and also Laos, were rejected. Foreign diplomats in Phnom Penh have told The Diplomat that ties are strained and Cambodia’s snubbing of its former Cold War ally was likely arranged with the tacit approval of China.
Beijing’s efforts to reign in North Korea have been a constant struggle. But the silence between Phnom Penh and Pyongyang was deafening after the killing of Kim in Kuala Lumpur and amid its diplomatic aftermath, almost without precedent on every level.
Then The Cambodia Daily revealed that the North Korean hit squad had used Cambodia to practice the assassination. Cambodia’s long-held reputation as a haven for criminals and terrorists seeking to carry out nefarious activities seems to have reached the ears of Pyongyang’s dirty tricks department.
According to the report, the squad that allegedly killed Kim with the nerve agent VX and trained in Cambodia included the Indonesian woman Siti Aisyah, 25, currently held by Malaysian authorities. There were reportedly at least ten rehearsals and three practice runs in Cambodia before the February 13 hit.
This should undermine her statement that she believed it was all a harmless prank designed for a reality TV show. It will also justifiably anger authorities in Phnom Penh, who have every right to believe that Pyongyang had taken advantage of their relationship, which these days has been built more on trade and mutual support than old Cold War alliances.
The many pro-government newspapers in Cambodia have not shied away from covering North Korea, warts and all, particularly since Kim rose to prominence more than five years ago, upon the death of his belligerent father.
Writing recently for The Diplomat, academics Sovinda Po and Veasna Var urged Cambodia to play the role of an honest broker with the two Koreas and help reduce tensions on the peninsula.
Wise words, no doubt. But given the latest North Korean antics in Cambodia, that is now most unlikely and Phnom Penh will look for diplomatic leads from China over how best to deal with its secretive and nasty little neighbor.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt