The Debate

The Hereditary Dictatorships of North Korea, Cambodia Have Shared Soviet Roots

Recent Features

The Debate | Opinion

The Hereditary Dictatorships of North Korea, Cambodia Have Shared Soviet Roots

Both nations traveled a similar path from Soviet patronage to personalist autocracy.

The Hereditary Dictatorships of North Korea, Cambodia Have Shared Soviet Roots

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, right, is greeted by Vice Minister of North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kung Sok Ung, left, at the Pyongyang airport, North Korea, on Monday June 4, 2012.

Credit: AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon

The responses to my article “US Sanctions and Rallying Around the Flag in North Korea and Cambodia,” published in The Diplomat on February 16 merit further elaboration.

The article was the result of a discussion between myself and the U.S. economist Steve Hanke over whether there should be any exceptions to his blanket position of opposing U.S. sanctions against foreign countries.

A spokesman for Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, Chum Sounry, wrote to The Diplomat, supporting Hanke’s stance on sanctions, but objecting to my classification of Cambodia alongside North Korea.

“The allegation that Cambodia’s power transmission operates solely on a hereditary basis is inaccurate and misleading,” Chum Sounry wrote. “The country’s Constitution clearly states that Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with a multi-party system, separation of powers, and guarantee of fundamental rights and freedoms. The transfer of power has regularly operated on a democratic basis.”

These claims are quickly dealt with. No one with any knowledge of Cambodia would accept them. There is not a single instance of a democratic transfer of power in Cambodian history, with the exception of the 1993 elections organized by the United Nations. The verdict of these elections was overturned by Hun Sen’s violent coup of 1997.

Hun Sen remained in power until handing over to his son Hun Manet in August 2023. Hun Manet’s younger brother Hun Many has just been appointed as a deputy prime minister. Democracy and hereditary power cannot be combined. They cannot co-exist beyond strained exercises in verbal gymnastics. The source of a ruler’s legitimacy may be democratic or it may be hereditary. It can’t be both.

Chum Sounry further states that the country’s 2023 election, in which the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was banned from taking part, as in 2018, was “widely assessed as free and fair, credible, just, and inclusive by thousands of international and independent national observers.”

There is in fact no credible observer anywhere who has made such a judgement. The banning of the opposition was in itself enough to make free and fair elections impossible. The U.S., Japan, the European Union, and France all declined to send observers. Of course, “observers” may be found who are willing to come and state that black is white, and some of these were to be found in Cambodia in July 2023. This, however, simply represents a paid-for marketing exercise by the regime.

A reporter from government-aligned Phnom Penh Post newspaper contacted me for a comment on the Foreign Ministry’s statement, while helpfully pointing out that the newspaper wouldn’t be able to publish anything critical of the government. I sent along a comment which, of course, did not appear. But a few days later there was a response to my article in the Phnom Penh Post written by Seun Sam, a policy researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia. The response mentions unspecified “improvements” in human rights and democratization in Cambodia in recent years, which are used to try and put some distance between Cambodia and the North Korean regime.

No one doubts for a moment that Cambodia and North Korea are dictatorships. But understanding exactly what kind of dictatorships these regimes represent is more difficult. Many dictatorships rely on the military to ensure their survival. The military, however, has never been a main source of stability for the dictatorships in North Korea and Cambodia. These are personalist regimes based on the power of single individuals, which have since become hereditary dictatorships.

Historical context is the key to understanding how this was possible. North Korea’s path to personalist dictatorship is explained by Wonjun Song and Joseph Wright in their article “The North Korean Autocracy in Comparative Perspective,” published in the Journal of East Asian Studies in 2018.

The North Korean state was created by the Soviet Union after it defeated Japan during the Second World War. This meant that domestic supporters of the Communist regime never had to act collectively to establish their authority. Song and Wright find that this gave rise to a highly personalist regime in North Korea, which was reinforced by being able to draw on Chinese as well as Soviet support. Having multiple external backers meant that Kim Il-sung didn’t require the military to keep him in power. It also freed his hands to secure personal control over the military and the internal security apparatus without fear of repercussions.

The pattern was repeated in Cambodia, when a Vietnamese invasion brought the genocidal Pol Pot regime to an end in early 1979. The Soviet Union provided logistical support for the invasion, including airlifts and sealifts of material. It also supported Vietnam when China invaded Vietnam in response to the Cambodian invasion.

During the 1980s, Vietnam relied almost exclusively on the Soviet Union for economic and military support, according to research carried out for the U.S. military by Sally W. Stoecker in 1989. Stoecker found that a “large portion” of Soviet aid to Vietnam in the 1980s was used to support the occupation of Cambodia. By the end of the 1980s, a weakened Soviet Union was no longer able to provide this backing.

Vietnam pulled out of Cambodia in 1989, which made possible the Paris Peace Agreements on Cambodia, signed in 1991. The agreements lay down a system of liberal democracy which failed to take root because personalist control of Cambodia’s security apparatus had already been established by Hun Sen. As had been achieved decades earlier in North Korea, Hun Sen was able to pivot away from his original external backer and secure Chinese support, creating a free hand to dismantle any potential locus of domestic opposition.

North Korea has never been constrained by international treaties in the same way as Cambodia. The civil war of 1950 to 1953 ended without a peace treaty ever being signed. Cambodia feels a need to pay lip service to the Paris Agreements, which largely accounts for the awkward juxtaposition of democratic window-dressing and dictatorial practice of which Chum Sounry’s comments are an example. North Korea’s belligerent rhetoric shows that it has no such need to justify itself to the outside world. Yet the roots and realities of the two regimes are the same.