Vestiges of a Friendship Between North Korea and Cambodia

With its white walls shimmering under the tropical sun and its yellow roof pointing towards the sky, the Angkor Panorama Museum could be an awkward shopping mall stranded on the outskirts of Siem Reap, the provincial city on Tonle Sap, 320 km from the capital Phnom Penh. Instead, it is a brick-and-mortar testament to the quiet friendship between Cambodia and North Korea.

The complex was built by the Mansudae Art Studio - a North Korean art group which describes itself as “probably the largest art studio in the world” – at an estimated US$24 million, although the price tag is not clear. As the official line goes, it is a space commemorating the fasts of the ancient Angkor civilization, featuring a 123 meter-long, 13-meter-high painting depicting life eight centuries ago. There are as many as 45,000 characters in it, which is one reason why leaflets handed out at the entrance claim that “the panorama is, absolutely, a masterpiece that will be remembered forever.”

The imposing building is a telling sign of the special relationship that once existed between the two countries, whose roots hark back to the 1960s, when Norodom Sihanouk, then Cambodia’s king, met Kim Il-sung, the late, Great Leader of North Korea. A friendship began to develop, growing stronger as Cambodia descended into the chaos of war and revolution.

When Sihanouk went into exile, the North Korean authorities remained close to him and even built him a 60-room palace close to Pyongyang - something the king never forgot. In his autobiography Sihanouk describes Kim Il-sung as “my surest and most sincere friend and the most steadfast in my support. Even more than a friend: a true brother and my only ‘true relative’ after the death of my mother.” In a 1985 interview with the New York Times he was already referring to the Korean leader as “more than a friend, more than a brother.”

Although Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and the Cambodian monarchy is now little more than a ceremonial institution, both sides still make an effort to show they get along fine. In early May, the North Korean ambassador told Khmer Times that the country he represents is seeking Phnom Penh's help in spearheading its cause with other members of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Cambodia have good relations and a history of supporting each other,” he told reporters. “I am confident that Cambodia, as a friend, really understands the tensions on the Korean peninsula and would express solidarity through ASEAN towards our just cause to help find a solution diplomatically to maintain stability and peace in our country."

Only days later Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a former prime minister, said he would soon pay a visit to the Hermit Kingdom to seek to ease tensions on the peninsula.

But being close to North Korea can easily turn embarrassing. The country has kidnapped foreigners, organized terrorist attacks and printed fake currency. The most recent scandal involved Otto Warm bier, an American student arrested last year for stealing a propaganda poster and condemned to 15 years of hard labor. Warmbier had been detained for a year and half when he was sent home in a coma. He died shortly after, without any explanation from the authorities in Pyongyang.

North Korean shenanigans have hit close to the Cambodian authorities, too. In 1996, Yoshimi Tanaka, a member of the Japanese Red Army who had hijacked a plane in 1970, was arrested while trying to cross from Cambodia into Vietnam. He had reportedly been helped by the North Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh, which is housed in a villa next to Prime Minister Hun Sen's own mansion.

Six years later the ties between the two countries were again under scrutiny, as the North Korean vessel So San was caught carrying 15 Scud missiles destined to Yemen. The freighter was registered in Cambodia under the now-defunct Cambodian Shipping Corporation (CSC), a flag of convenience system set up in the 1990s to raise funds. Such schemes, which plenty of countries have deployed, allow a vessel to be registered in a foreign nation for a fee and have been extensively blamed for hiding all sorts of dirty secrets. Among CSC's managers were Cambodian political figures as well as a North Korean diplomat.

Cooling bilateral relations further is the simple fact that, while Phnom Penh may not want to waste its connections with Pyongyang, Cambodia is not going to let North Korea get in the way of its new interests. Leaked US cables, for example, show Cambodian authorities have actively cooperated in handling North Korean defectors who seek refuge abroad – something which the Hermit Kingdom sees as a “crime of treachery against the nation.”

A conversation dating from 2006 quotes the Prime Minister's adviser Om Yentieng as dismissing concerns that a public exposure of Phnom Penh's dealings with the United States in managing refugees would harm bilateral relations with North Korea. Somewhat paradoxically, however, he worried that such occurrence might put the security of Mr. Hun Sen in jeopardy.

“He did register some concern over the PM's safety due to the proximity of the North Korean Embassy to the PM's residence – should USG-RGC cooperation on North Korean refugees become public knowledge,” the cable reads.

These days, what remains of the old friendship are places like the Angkor museum - which upon closer inspection looks just like another way of making money. Only one third of the space in the building provides information on the temples, mostly in the form of pictures. The rest is a flea market stuffed with paintings and memorabilia. That almost everything there is on sale -- at prices ranging from US$5 to over US$1000 – is a sign of how desperate sanction-laden North Korea is for hard currency.

Restaurants are also helping the regime make ends meet. Pyongyang, right in the middle of the capital, is one of four eateries set up in Cambodia by the North Koreans. Here professionally trained and smartly outfitted waitresses smile at customers, carrying dishes of dumplings in broth, fish and expensive liquors. All is done in Korean traditional costumes. About mid-dinner the lights go off for a show. The waitresses, who no doubt are selected for their beauty as well as their loyalty to the regime, dash to the stage and start singing and dancing. One swirls around with a jar balanced on her head. Minutes later, another is playing tunes on a saxophone.

Customers have a good time. They stare. They toast. They try to snap pictures, which is forbidden. But especially they pay – certainly quite a bit of money passes through this restaurant, which during the weekend is filled to the brim with both locals and tourists. The golden days may be behind the two countries but decades after King Sihanouk and North Korea former Great Leader met, the friendship they formed keeps on bearing fruits for the Hermit Kingdom.