As a small state in mainland Southeast Asia, Cambodia faces significant strategic challenges, both domestically and internationally. The current nuclear crisis in North Korea poses a challenge for Cambodia as it attempts to balance its relationships with the international community, South Korea, and North Korea — all of which are very important to Cambodia’s national interests. As a member of the United Nations, Cambodia must more or less work hand-in-hand with the international community to put diplomatic pressure on North Korea after its aggressive actions. Yet North Korea and Cambodia share historic ties, even as South Korea has a strong economic relationship with Cambodia.
Historically, Cambodia and North Korea enjoyed the “honeymoon” of their relationship during the era of Prince Norodom Sihanouk (the Samdech Euv, or father-prince of Cambodia) and North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. The unique relationship between Cambodia and North Korea was formed when Prince Sihanouk and Kim met during the 1961 Non-Aligned Movement Conference in Belgrade. After that, Prince Sihanouk paid his first state visit to North Korea in 1965. The relationship between the two countries continued to strengthen, to the point that Prince Sihanouk described Kim Il-Sung as his surest and most sincere friend, a true brother, and his only true relative after the death of his mother.
There were good reasons behind Prince Sihanouk’s depiction of Kim Il-sung. During the Prince’s difficult time of exile from Cambodia, he was welcomed with the a magnificent Korean-style palace near Pyongyang. Following the Vietnamese invasion in Cambodia, Russia, which had both strategic and ideological influence over North Korea during the Cold War, pressured North Korea not to allow the Prince and the Cambodian embassy to remain in Pyongyang. Russia, which was allied with Vietnam at the time, wanted the Prince to have less room for maneuver during Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, and was not happy about North Korea’s assistance.
Even with pressure from the big brother Russia, however, Kim Il-Sung never gave in. He allowed the Prince to reside with all freedom in Pyongyang. Upon returning to Cambodia as a king in 1991, Sihanouk was accompanied by a squad of North Korean presidential bodyguards.
But the global circumstances are not static, but rather evolve over time. The same is true for the Cambodia-North Korea relationship. Ties between the two sides waned after the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 and the King’s abdication of the throne in 2004, followed by his demise in 2012.
At present, Cambodia and North Korea do not have a close relationship in terms of trade and investment. North Korean investment in Cambodia is very limited, with one large exception. North Korea helped Cambodia build a $24 million Angkor Paranoma Museum at the historical site in Siem Reap, Cambodia’s northwestern province. According to a Cambodian government official, both sides agreed that the first ten years of profits will be given to North Korea, then the profits will be split for a decade, and finally the full ownership of the museum will be granted to Cambodia.
On the political front, there is more cooperation. Cambodia often stands with North Korea. For example, in 2015 North Korea requested that Cambodia ban Hollywood’s controversial comedy The Interview, which featured the fictional assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jung-un. The Cambodian government took immediate action to put an end to all forms of distribution, urging the local authorities to remove pirated DVDs from markets and making sure that local television stations and theaters banned screenings. Although there was strong criticism that Cambodia’s decision to ban the movie restricted freedom of expression, Cambodia accepted the North Korean request and proceeded with the ban anyway.
North Korea reciprocates by standing with Cambodia on human rights issues. Late last year, North Korea buttressed a Cambodian Foreign Ministry statement charging the Office of the United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) of unauthorized activities as the international body has not renewed its memorandum of understanding with the ministry. A Pyongyang diplomat agreed that the UN office was intervening in Cambodian politics, violating the principle of respect for sovereignty and non-inference in domestic affairs. He went on to emphasize, “Every year the UN raises the issues of human rights while breaching the principle of fairness when discussing human rights and showing sympathy for hostile acts against sovereign states.”
This reciprocal relationship between Cambodia and North Korea has also presented several challenges for Phnom Penh. Regarding to joint development projects like Angkor Paranoma Museum, Cambodia has been harshly criticized for underpinning the oppressive, authoritarian North Korean regime. Such commercial cooperation contributes to further human rights violation in North Korea and provides Pyongyang a platform to get around economic sanctions. Cambodia was unswayed by the criticism, however, and proceeded with the joint project. The museum is already open for visitors.
Another challenge is that North Korean’s bad behavior reflect poorly on Cambodia. This was directly apparent in a recent UN report. Last summer, the Cambodian-flagged vessel Jie Shun, captained by North Korean since 2012, was intercepted and found to be carrying 30,000 prohibited PG-7 rocket-propelled grenades and related parts. North Korea’s subterfuge led many to castigate Cambodia for assisting North Korea in smuggling prohibited weapons, spoiling Cambodia’s credibility and soft power. The UN Security Council panel said that Pyongyang was flouting sanctions by trading in prohibited goods using evasive techniques that are increasing in scale, scope, and sophistication. In response, Cambodia stated that it did not endorse North Korea’s illegal act and expressed support for UN sanctions against North Korea.
Perhaps the most pressing challenge in bilateral diplomatic relation is North Korea’s stubborn insistence on upholding its nuclear program. North Korean’s recent missile test has caused much worry in its neighbor, South Korea. In this regard, South Korea, which is among Cambodia’s largest trading partners and biggest development assistance donors, wants Cambodia to join hands to pressure North Korea over its nuclear ambitions.
In response, Cambodia has made it very clear that Phnom Penh will not support any North Korean efforts to further develop its nuclear program, and that such actions will cause potential harm to peace and stability in the region and the world. To reinforce its claim, Cambodia has joined the UN and South Korea in the effort to prevent North Korea from advancing its nuclear programs, to the displeasure of North Korea.
Even though both sides are confronting some diplomatic challenges, there is still room for optimism about bilateral ties. During his meeting with Cambodian foreign minister, North Korea’s new ambassador to Cambodia, Jang Yun-gon, said that the international circumstances have changed and he pledged to strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries, without naming specific areas for cooperation. In response, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon reaffirmed Cambodia’s willingness to cooperate, but called on North Korea to be tolerant of Cambodia’s objections to future weapons tests as a member of the UN.
For bilateral relations to truly move forward, North Korea needs to reassure Cambodia, and the region, that its rise is peaceful. North Korea has to demonstrate — through actions, not just words — that it has no intention to attack any country with its nuclear weapons. North Korea should also seriously consider giving up its nuclear ambitions. The resulting freedom from economic sanctions could help North Korea to attract more investment and contribute to its economic development, ultimately reducing the poverty rate and improving the living standards of North Korean people. In this scenario, Cambodia would willingly cooperate with North Korea in a wider context, from agricultural production to science and technology exchanges, which would lead to an increase in bilateral trade and investment.
Ultimately, Cambodia would find it difficult to pick sides between North and South Korea. Both Koreas provide different interests for Cambodia. It is important not to understate the difficulty of Cambodia’s strategic environment. Cambodia is a small and relatively poor country, emerging from decades of civil and spill-over wars. Phnom Penh still relies on foreign assistance to develop its country’s economy and can ill-afford to turn away any suitors. Given this, some political analysts suggest that Cambodia should emphasize strict adherence to its policy of permanent neutrality, non-alignment, and peaceful co-existence, as pronounced in the 1993 Constitution.
A smarter foreign policy option toward the Peninsula would be for Phnom Penh to uphold a well-balanced approach, allowing Cambodia to play the role of honest broker in reducing ongoing tensions between the two Koreas. As Veasna Var has suggested elsewhere, “It would be wise for Cambodia to make use of its good relations with both countries to reduce tension between the two brothers and enhance international order. Whilst contributing to peace and stability in the region, Cambodia would also benefit from peaceful cooperation, ensuring a win-win-outcome.”
As rightly pointed out by Bernd Schaefer, a senior scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center and professor at George Washington University, both in Washington D.C., “if Cambodia places all its eggs in one basket, they will ultimately break. Cambodia needs as many baskets as possible — large, medium, and small.” Thus, picking South Korea or North Korea to the exclusion of the other is not the best policy option for Cambodia. Of course, keeping all sides happy is a true foreign policy challenge, but Cambodia’s history has shown that when the country chooses sides, it leads to disaster.
Sovinda Po is a Master’s Candidate at East China Normal University, Shanghai.
Veasna Var is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.