Young Pioneer Tours

Cambodia – North Korea relations

Introduction

We’ve written extensively on the foreign relations of North Korea, including foreign embassies in Pyongyang and the main trading partners of North Korea.

In actual fact, one of the best friends, and perhaps strangest friends of North Korea has been its friendship with the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Beginnings of the North Korean friendship with Cambodia

In April 1965, President Sukarno invited His Late Majesty the King Father Norodom Sihanouk and the late President Kim Il Sung to a meeting in Jakarta for a meeting of a forerunner to the Non-Aligned Movement.

Apparently, the meeting went exceptionally well, and the two developed a strong friendship. While it might seem weird for a member of royalty to befriend a communist leader, it should be remembered that Sihanouk, much like Kim Il-Sung, were both quite the mavericks. At the time, Cambodia was trying to tread a middle ground between east and west but was increasingly being pushed towards the communist block. In 1965 Sihanouk was a dictatorial leader of Cambodia, and well friends are your friends.

The friendship was so good that when Sihanouk was toppled in the coup of 1970, the Soviet Union supported the new Khmer Republic, while Pyongyang broke off diplomatic relations and supported Sihanouk.

Royal Government of National Union of Cambodia (GRUNC)

Following his ousting, Sihanouk went to Beijing, where he was persuaded by both Beijing and Pyongyang to ally with the Khmer Rouge. The merits of this have been debated somewhat, but it is generally considered that many of the troops who ended up fighting for the Khmer Rouge felt that they were actually fighting for their king.

Phnom Penh Falls to the Khmer Rouge

After the fall of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge and the formation of Democratic Kampuchea Sihanouk briefly became head of state of the country before resigning due to the KR government’s policies.

Until their overthrow, the Khmer Rouge leadership kept Sihanouk alive, which many believe was due to pressure the only two allies of Democratic Kampuchea, China and the Kim Il Sung led North Korea.

Peoples Republic of Kampuchea

Kim IL Sung and King Norodom Sihanouk in North Korea

In 1979 the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, and a Vietnamese/Soviet-backed government was installed. Sihanouk again ended up in Beijing and Pyongyang while the Khmer Rouge became the armed opposition, again.

At this point, Kim Il Sung stepped up to bat for their friend and went against the official line of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc by recognizing Sihanouk as the rightful leader of Cambodia.

Kim Il-Sung even went as far as to say that “our Communism is not honourable unless it supports the patriots like Sihanouk, who struggle for the independence of their country and his people’s freedom. Communism would lose much of its value if it did not respect the patriotism and ideals of independence and freedom of others”.

With the support of China, North Korea, and a mostly bunch of non-communist countries, Sihanouk again formed an alliance with the Khmer Rouge, which lead to the formation of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea.

Throughout the civil war, Sihanouk’s forces received funding and training from the North Koreans, while Sihanouk was regularly received in Pyongyang. On all of his trips, he was received with honour and dignity of a visiting head of state and his visits were so frequent he even kept a vila in Pyongyang for some time.

North Korea, which was fairly isolated at the time, looked at Sihanouk as a trusted friend and ally and used him as a sort of envy to pass messages to many governments such as Japan and even the USA.

After peace was restored to Cambodia in 1993, with Sihanouk as King, warm relations were continued and extended between the two nations through the Cambodia-DPRK Joint Committee to strengthen bilateral ties.

Since 1993 and despite whatever sanctions had been in place, the two countries have continued to trade and indeed be friends. For many years North Korea even used Cambodia as a flag of convenience for its ships.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (center) meets Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Monineath at the Jangsuwon State Guest House in Pyongyang July 31, 2004. Mr. Kim received ‘The Grand Cross Order of the King of Cambodia’ and ‘The Grand Necklace Order for National Independence of the Kingdom of Cambodia’. Reuters

But it has not been all one-way traffic, with North Korea building hospitals and museums throughout the country and the two still maintaining diplomatic missions in each other’s countries.

Since the death of Sihanouk, increased trade with South Korea and pressure to enforce sanctions have restricted cooperation between the sets. However, they both still have diplomatic missions in each other’s countries and can be considered good friends, although they may still not bestie anymore.

To check out North Korea and Cambodia in one go check out our 2021 North Korea and Cambodia combo.

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