Clarification on N Korea’s ties with Cambodia

Ambassador Julio A Jeldres / No Comments Share:
The late President Kim Il Sung and His Late Majesty the King Father Norodom Sihanouk. Supplied

I read with interest the opinion peace on Cambodia-North Korea Relations by Chheang Vannarith published in Khmer Times on February 22.

Having lived for extensive periods of time in North Korea between 1981 and 1993, I have great sympathy for the valiant people of North Korea, who have suffered through no fault of their own.

Having clearly stated where my sympathies lie, I should add that much is written about North Korea today which is often not accurate and tends to highlight the negative aspects that exist in every society’s development. In this regard, I hope you would allow me to offer a few clarifications on a number of issues raised by your distinguished columnist.

The relationship between His Late Majesty the King Father Norodom Sihanouk and the late President Kim Il Sung does not date from the Non-Aligned meeting in Belgrade in 1961 but rather from a meeting in Jakarta in April 1965 celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the Summit Conference of Asian and African Countries, later to be known as the Non-Aligned Movement. President Sukarno of Indonesia had invited Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia and also President Kim Il Sung to attend the commemoration.

It was President Sukarno who introduced Kim Il Sung to Samdech Sihanouk, as Mr Kim had expressed interest in establishing good relations with King Sihanouk’s Cambodia. A solid and genuine friendship was established between the two leaders and Cambodia extended diplomatic recognition to North Korea, the first kingdom in Asia to do so. King Sihanouk recognized North Korea in 1965 when the world had isolated that country and Kim Il Sung supported King Sihanouk following the coup by General Lon Nol in March 1970.

It should be pointed out that North Korea broke diplomatic relations with the so-called “Khmer Republic”, against the advice of the then Soviet Union, which maintained its Embassy in Phnom Penh until the fall of the “Khmer Republic”. North Korea had no strategic interests in Cambodia and extended strong support and assistance to the Royal Government of National Union of Cambodia (GRUNC) established by His Late Majesty in Peking in May 1970, again, against the advice of the Soviet Union and other Eastern European Socialist countries.

In 1979, after the Vietnamese got rid of the murderous Pol Pot regime, North Korea continued to support the efforts of the late King Father to bring peace back to Cambodia through negotiations among the warring parties. In doing, Kim Il Sung went against a formal request by the Soviet Union, Cuba and other Socialist countries to shut his doors to King Sihanouk as there was nothing to gain “from supporting a deposed Head of State like Sihanouk”.

Kim Il Sung’s answer was that “our Communism is not honourable unless it supports the patriots like Sihanouk, who struggle for the independence of their country and the freedom of his people. Communism would lose much of its value if it did not respect the patriotism and ideals of independence and freedom of others”. Therefore, Kim Il Sung continued to receive Norodom Sihanouk with honour, dignity and respect, whenever the late King visited North Korea every year.

This was the time of the Cold War and North Korea was completely isolated. I recall that in Pyongyang there were only two Western embassies – Austria and Sweden – and only Indonesia represented Asean, as Cambodia was still not a member of that association.

When China began its process of opening to the West, Kim Il Sung also wanted to get North Korea out of its isolation and he asked his trusted friend, Norodom Sihanouk, who was highly respected internationally, to help him in this endeavour. First, in May 1984, he asked Samdech Sihanouk to convey an invitation to the Japanese prime minister of the time, to visit North Korea. Samdech Sihanouk was visiting Japan at the invitation of the Japanese government. The Japanese did not take up Kim Il Sung’s invitation.

In October 1984, Kim Il Sung asked his friend King Sihanouk to convey invitations to visit North Korea to former US President Richard Nixon and former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Both declined. In his letter dated November 20, 1984, Kissinger wrote “I do not believe any useful purpose would be served by my visiting Pyongyang at this time. Such visit would give rise to inappropriate and unhelpful speculation at a time when the two parties whose interests are most directly affected – North and South Korea are beginning direct talks”.

Former President Nixon replied on January 24, 1985 that: “I would like to be able to give you a positive answer to your letter. However, after consulting with officials in our government I have concluded that it will not be possible for me to do so”. In other words, Washington officially nor unofficially was not interested in talking to Kim Il Sung. Would such a meeting have helped to reduce the tension that has existed in the Korean peninsula for decades? We will never know. The unfortunate thing is that North Korea is always depicted as a bad element in this distorted picture of events.

It is not accurate to state that the Cambodia Shipping Company was the main vehicle for North Korea to do trade by using the Cambodian “flag of convenience” and that it “enjoyed royal protection”. These were the actions of individuals without the knowledge of the late King Father.

At the time, I was still drafting His Late Majesty’s English correspondence and I clearly recall (there is an entry on my diary) that he instructed me to issue a letter to a personality in Hong Kong that had written to him complaining about this, informing him that he did not know about the formation of this company or about its activities. I did not keep a copy of the said letter but a copy must be in the late King’s archives in France.

It is certain that United Nations sanctions against North Korea, whether they are based on genuine intelligence or not, have affected trade between the two countries but I believe that in spite of the many obstacles facing the relationship between the two countries, there is still a lot of goodwill and friendship between Cambodia and North Korea.

One can only hope that for the well-being of the people of North Korea that both US President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un are serious about reaching a good understanding and proceed to take action to allow North Korea to join the community of nations.

Ambassador Julio A Jeldres, PhD
Research fellow, School of Philosophy, History and International Relations, Monash University. Counsellor to the Cabinet of HM the King of Cambodia with the protocol rank of Minister of State.

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