Cambodia Caught in the North-South Korea Dispute

Var Veasna

30/July/2016, Commentaries

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The international crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program is entering a more dangerous phase, recasting the geopolitics of the region and posing increasingly difficult policy choices for the world in general and Cambodia in particular.

North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test and a long-range missile launch earlier this year, which led to condemnation by the United Nations Security Council. The 15 members of the UNSC unanimously approved a statement that the launch of ballistic missile technology contributes to North Korea’s development of systems to deliver nuclear weapons.

The simmering tensions between North and South Korea that have escalated with North Korea’s recent nuclear test place Cambodia’s foreign policy towards the Peninsular in a challenging position: choosing between Cambodia’s historic ties to North Korea and strong current economic ties to South Korea.

In an effort to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambition, the South Korean government at the end of June sent a high ranking diplomatic delegation led by vice Defense Minister Hwang In-moo to hold talks with Cambodia and Laos, countries that have historic ties with North Korea. This visit is believed to have been designed as part of a broader diplomatic campaign to win over Pyongyang’s allies.

Given the growing importance of economic cooperation with South Korea, as well as regional peace and stability concerns, Cambodia appears to have made a strategic choice to back South Korea and the international community, putting pressure on North Korea’s nuclear ambition.

Cambodia’s quest for closer ties to South Korea was evidenced during the 28 June meeting between Prime Minister Hun Sen and South Korean vice Defense Minister Hwang In-moo. The Phnom Penh government has made its position clear: Cambodia will join with the international community and South Korea in pressing North Korea to give up its nuclear tests.

According to a statement from the South Korean Defense Ministry, Prime Minister Hun Sen confirmed his support for South Korea’s policy in regard to the North’s nuclear threats and promised his “continuing participation in the international community’s efforts against North Korea, including the faithful implementation of the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions”. Also, Cambodia vowed that “in light of the recent international efforts” Cambodia would reassess its ties with North Korea.

In the meeting between the Hwang In-Moo and his Cambodian counterpart Neang Phat, the North Korean nuclear issue was also discussed in addition to that of defense cooperation. The two vice defense ministers agreed that the North Korean nuclear test clearly violates UNSC resolutions and vowed to cooperate closely in order to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.

Phnom Penh’s pursuit of closer ties with the South Korean government is motivated by economic interests. South Korea and Cambodia resumed diplomatic ties in 1997, which led to a remarkable growth in political, economic development and cultural cooperation. Since 1997, the bilateral trade volume has increased 15 times to over 1 billion U.S. dollars in 2015. South Korea is the second largest investor in Cambodia, with the cumulative investment of US$4.46 billion the same year. According to the Korea EXIM Bank’s 2015 data, there were 748 South Korean businesses operating in Cambodia. Most investments are in the garment, construction, real-estate, restaurant and tourism sectors.

Exchanged visits by Prime Minister Hun Sen and former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in 2009 deepened bilateral cooperation. South Korean development assistance focuses on four priority sectors – agriculture and rural development; health and the medical sector; transport and green energy infrastructure; and human resources development. Direct flights between South Korea and Cambodia has led to an increase in South Korean tourists, which now rank third in tourist arrivals after Vietnam and China. In the transport sector, South Korea is involved with construction and renovation projects of road networks including National Road No 2, No 22, No 48 and many rural roads.

Cambodia’s unique ties with North Korea, on the other hand, date back to 1961 when Sihanouk and North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung first met at a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Belgrade. The two countries have enjoyed a special relationship ever since.

According to Sihanouk’s official biographer, Julio A. Jeldres, the relationship between the two men was unique in that it was not predicated on ideology, strategic or trade interests but based “purely on the friendship between the two leaders and the support they gave to each other during difficult times”. Kim Il Sung built a palace for Sihanouk in exile, and the king continued to employ North Korean security guards even after he returned to Phnom Penh. In his 2005 memoir, Sihanouk wrote that Kim was “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.” The deaths of Kim Il-Sung in 1994 and of Sihanouk in late 2012 have weakened their countries’ relationship.

Although Cambodia and North Korea have a unique relationship, bilateral cooperation appears to be limited. An exception is The Angkor Panorama, a North Korean-funded museum which reportedly cost 24 mn USD and was opened last December in Siem Reap.The museum is expected to contribute to the development of the Cambodian tourism industry, whereas for North Korea it will serve a means of earning foreign currency.

As the Cambodian government has come under growing pressure to maintain a diplomatic balance between the two Koreas, it appears that South Korea has attained its diplomatic success because Cambodia and South Korea have convergent national interests. South Korea needs Cambodia for pressing North Korea on its nuclear ambition, and Cambodia needs South Korean support to achieve its national development goals: reaching upper-middle income country status by 2030 and high income status by 2050.

While backing the international community and South Korea in condemning North Korea’s nuclearisation serves the national interest of Cambodia, further distancing from North Korea is not a good foreign policy choice. A well-balanced approach to the Korean Peninsula presents Cambodia with the opportunity to play a more central role on the international stage. Cambodia can be in an effective position to play the role of honest broker in reducing ongoing tensions between the two Koreas, fulfilling former Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong’s aspiration for Cambodian foreign policy to play a greater regional role. It would be wise for Cambodia to make use of its good relations with both countries to reduce tension between the two brothers and enhance international order. Whilst contributing to peace and stability in the region, Cambodia would also benefit from peaceful cooperation, ensuring a win-win-outcome.

Veasna Var is a senior research fellow at the CISS and a PhD student in the Program in Political and International Studies at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.