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Amid Korean Tensions, Could Cambodia Play a Mediation Role?

Samdech Norodom Sihanouk, Head of State and Chairman of the National United Front of Cambodia, and Samdech Penn Nouth, Chairman of the Political Bureau of the N.U.F.C. Central Committee and Prime Minister of the Royal Government of National Union of Cambodia, on April 21, 1975, went to the Guest House in Pyongyang, North Korea and met with President Kim Il Sung, right, of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. (AP Photo)

Cambodia’s relationship with North Korea stems from King Sihanouk’s friendship with the father of North Korea, dictator Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of its current ruler, Kim Jong Un.

Almost two decades ago, South Korea’s president, Kim Dae Jung, asked the Cambodian King to help mediate in talks with the North. Chheang Vun, then the Southeast Asian nation’s ambassador to Seoul, however, recalls King Norodom Sihanouk’s response: knowing the North did not want to engage in talks with the South, he did not reach out to his North Korean contacts.

“We can only be the mediator if the two countries agree [to talk],” Vun quotes Sihanouk as saying at the time.

Cambodia’s relationship with North Korea stems from King Sihanouk’s friendship with the father of North Korea, dictator Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of its current ruler, Kim Jong Un.

Kim built Sihanouk a winter palace outside Pyongyang in 1974 and provided the king with an elite bodyguard unit. Diplomatic relations continue, as they have done since 1965, and Cambodia remains one of the relatively few countries to host a North Korean embassy.

As tensions rise once more on the Korean peninsular, amid fresh nuclear weapons tests by the North, questions have been raise as to whether Cambodia could play a role, as Sihanouk was asked to in the early 2000s.

Experts say Cambodia should take a “more active” role in the Korean conflict, but is restrained by its commitment to non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

“In case the two Koreas ask Cambodia to be a mediator or consider Cambodia as a location for peace talks, I think Cambodia could do it,” said Chheang Vannarith, chairman of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies.

Cambodia should “be more active than before in giving recommendations and launching initiatives in order to ensure stability and regional security,” he added.

Cambodia receives significant investment from South Korea, but no known benefits from the North.'

“Our benefits with South Korea are larger than North Korea. North Korea is more historical relations and we just keep it until now, but there are no large benefits,” said Vannarith.

In 2007, the late North Korean ruler, Kim Jong Il, visited Cambodia to promote bilateral ties.

Sok Touch, a researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said relations with the North had changed since the death of Sihanouk in 2012.

He added that with the superpowers, China and the United States, heavily involved in the Korea standoff, it was unlikely that Cambodia would play a role.

“North Korea is now China’s tool to strengthen its power against the United States,” he said.

However, he added that if there was a future conflict between an Asean member and North Korea, Cambodia would be a prime candidate for mediation.

Relations between the South and North have deteriorated since the killing of Kim Jong Nam, Jong Un’s estranged half-brother, in Malaysia in February.

Paul Chambers, lecturer in international affairs at Naresuan University, Thailand, said if it was proven that Jong Nam was murdered by the North Korean state, using practice runs in Cambodia, “the Hun Sen government will have to distance itself from North Korea in order to save face.”

He added that Cambodia may be able to play a mediating role between the Koreas.

“Playing such a role would increase the regional reputation of Hun Sen as an able diplomatic player. The Asean Regional Forum could be used in this context,” he said.

“Given that China is close to both Cambodia and North Korea, while the United States increasingly seems distant from Cambodia, then North Korea might think it can trust Cambodia. At this point, I think that the relations between the two countries could be durable enough for Cambodia to someday arbitrate between the two Koreas,” he added.

However, Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said he was unsure whether Asean had the capacity to get involved, pointing to divisions over the South China Sea dispute.

Last week, the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson again emphasized the need for a new approach to deal with the growing North Korean nuclear threat that could include more aggressive actions than those taken under former President Barack Obama’s Policy of Strategic Patience.

“Let me be very clear the Policy of Strategic Patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table,” Tillerson said during a recent visit to South Korea.

Raoul M. Jennar, who advises the Cambodia government on foreign affairs, said the government had no plans to weigh into the Korean dispute.

“We are not specifically involved in this issue. We don’t see any other reasons to try to involve our country in this specific issue,” he said.

Chum Sounry, Foreign Ministry spokesman, said while Cambodia maintained strong relations with North Korea, it was against the country’s nuclear weapons program.

“Cambodia’s stance is not to take sides. Cambodia’s stance is to see peace, stability and security in the Korean Peninsula,” said Chum Sounry.


(c) 2017 VOA Cambodia

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