Earlier his week, the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace held a splendid discussion on the future of Inter-Korean Dialogue, supported by the Embassy of the Republic of Korea (let’s get our names right: that’s South Korea to you, or “the ROK” as it was referred to back in the day). The history and current state of DPRK-Cambodian relations are of interest to many, and this post kicks off our new, occasional series on the topic (it’s a pretty quiet relationship these days since the passing of His Majesty, King Sihanouk).
If you ever visit Phnom Penh or Siem Reap in Cambodia, you may have had the pleasure of looking at a curious chain of restaurants called “Pyongyang Restaurants”. These chains are found throughout China and Southeast Asia and are run the North Korean government, staffed by North Korean waitresses, serving North Korean cuisine.
Just across from the independence monument and adjacent to the residence of Hun Sen, you will also find a large grandiose (and relatively recently remodeled) building flying the flag of North Korea, which is indeed the embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (an old political science rule of thumb is the more words denoting democracy before the name of the country, the less democracy on the ground). Visiting Angkor Wat, you will also have the chance to visit the Angkor Panorama Museum, which was funded by North Korea and even had artists from the Mansudae Art Studio (famous for undertaking art projects worldwide for other nations, such as Senegal and Zimbabwe) in Pyongyang paint a giant mural for the museum depicting a scene from the Angkor era.
While several southeast Asian countries maintain relations with North Korea, none seem to have the peculiarly close ties and history that Cambodia and North Korea share – with the possible exception of China’s Macau Special Administration Region, the former home of the assassinated elder brother of DPRK head of state Kim Jong-Un and the headquarters of Banco Delta Asia. The latter having been banned from currency US dollar currency transactions by the U.S. Department of the Treasury since its active role in DPRK money laundering came to light.
Beginning with a simple meeting between President Kim Il Sung and King Norodom Sihanouk in Jakarta in 1965, the nations have remained close even through the times of the Khmer Rouge. North Korea built a palace outside of Pyongyang for Sihanouk to reside during his time in exile where he would spend 2 months of each year until he came back to Phnom Penh in 1991.
Since the death of both Kim Il Sung, Kim Jung Il and Sihanouk it appears the relations are becoming less than ideal for the North Koreans as the South Koreans increase their influence with their investment dollars. South Korea remains a primary source of not just FDI but also development funds and Phnom Penh hosts a rapidly expanding South Korean diaspora. This reality of the relationship with the DPRK is also compounded by the fact that the relationship between the two nations was particularly dependent on the personal relationship between Sihanouk and Kim Il Sung. Further, the attitude of the international community –particularly the increasingly harsh tone adopted by Beijing towards North Korea in recent times is only putting more pressure on nations such as Cambodia to distance themselves from their once close friend.
Cambodia, does offer a strange, pseudo-negotiating table between the two Koreas, where trade missions interact and where the general South Korean public (in the form of tourists to Cambodia) may see a glimpse of the neighbor that is so close, but still so far away. The north Korean restaurants offer a chance for South Koreans to put a face to their Northern neighbor and interact with the select few who are given the opportunity to work abroad. These restaurants are a definitely a spectacle to witness for yourself, as the staff are some of the most talented musicians who also work as waitresses. But beyond the culinary perks, whethe Cambodia will be able to act as ASEAN’s point man on North Korea remains to be seen and the hallmarks do not quite appear to be there at present.
- Sovinda Po and Veasna Var, What's Next for Cambodia-North Korea Relations, the Diplomat, 17 March 2017
- Geoffrey Cain, Cambodia: Sihanouk's Love Affair with North Korea, PRI, 4 February 2013
- Luke Hunt, North Korea-Cambodia Relations: The Sound of Silence, the Diplomat, 21 March 2017
- Jaewan Noh, North Korean Restaurants Fail in Cambodia, Radio Free Asia, 2 February 2017
- Portia Chey, A Tour of North Korea's Multimillion dollar museum - in Cambodia, the Guardian, 1 February 2016