When Indonesia’s dictator Dr Sukarno wanted to set up his own Olympic Games in 1962, he had two friends help him out – Kim Il-Sung, and Cambodia’s Nihodom Sihanouk.
Sihanouk, the so called ‘King-Father’ of Cambodia who died last week, didn’t have any gold medals to his name, although the totalitarian leader excelled elsewhere: he holds the Guinness World Record for the greatest number of political offices held by one individual.
He was, across a six decade career, a prince, a king, a dictator, a president, a prime minister (twice), and a leader-in-exile. Kim Il-Sung loved the guy, and built him a huge Angkor Wat-style palace as a second home. When he died on 15 October, top DPRK officials were quick to send condolences for a man who was, for decades, one of Asia’s most infamous Cold War figures, and a friend of the Kim dynasty like few others. North Korea has lost one of its few true allies, and it could mark the end of a particularly special relationship between the DPRK and Cambodia.
Samdech (“Lord”) Prince Norodom Sihanouk was put in power by the French in 1941. They hoped his youth, privilege and inexperience would make him a pliant figurehead ruler. In fact, until the rise of Pol Pot, Sihanouk proved to be astute and wily. He resigned as monarch and in 1955 ran for president, winning by a massive majority. As a ruler he was a shameless populist who wooed both his own subjects and foreigners with his ebullient charm. He was also considered duplicitous and petulant.
Like many leaders of newly independent ‘Third World’ nations, Sihanouk supported the Non-Aligned Movement, and was determined Cambodia wouldn’t follow nearby Laos and Vietnam into the maelstrom of superpower confrontation. And for the first 17 years of Cambodian independence, he managed to pull it off.
Kim Il-sung first met the Prince in 1961 in Belgrade at a meeting of the Non Aligned Movement. Their instant rapport perhaps attests to that old adage: opposites attract. Kim Il-sung was the lowly-born boy from the village of Mangyondae. Prince Sihanouk claimed ancestry from the Khmer emperors who built Angkor Wat, men who had ruled with semi-divine status. The working class lad turned god-king and the god-king turned man of the people clicked. In 1965, Sihanouk made his first visit to North Korea.
Those were heady days within the non-aligned camp. Kim and Sihanouk may have denounced imperialism in their speeches but their mutual friend, Dr Ahmed Sukarno, was a man of action, not words. The Indonesian president, charismatic, mercurial, libidinous and petulant – character traits rather like those of Sihanouk – wanted an alternative to the Olympic Games.
Thus he inaugurated the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO) in 1962, with competitors mostly from other left-leaning Third World nations. After the first GANEFO in Jakarta, the second games were held in Phnom Penh in December 1966, while the third, scheduled to take place in Pyongyang in September 1967, never took place. By then, Sukarno, though officially still in power, had been sidelined by his right-wing military.
At the end of the decade Sihanouk’s regime was wobbling. Khmer communists, working underground, staged an unsuccessful uprising in western Cambodia in 1967. Two years later, the Pentagon authorised secret ‘Arc Light’ B-52 strikes against Vietnamese bases in the Cambodian countryside. The following year, Sihanouk was ousted in a pro-American coup whilst he was away visiting Moscow.
North Korea’s Great Leader came to the rescue. Sihanouk resurfaced in Beijing and set up a government-in-exile with the Khmer Rouge as his military backers. China supplied money and weaponry over the next five years, as did North Vietnam, though relations were fraught at best. But it was in North Korea that the Prince found his personal heaven.
In 1974, Kim Il-sung dispatched a construction crew to build a 60-room mansion set among pines at the foot of Mount Taesong, overlooking the Chang-suwon lake. Sihanouk and his wife Monique had a movie theatre, a Buddhist shrine, a gymnasium, and even their own personal bodyguards. Eyewitnesses described a building which on overall shape that looked somewhat like Angkor Wat. While the Khmer Rouge army edged ever closer to Phnom Penh, their exiled figurehead leader could kick back in luxury, one hour north of Pyongyang.
That said, Kim clearly knew the Khmer Rouge well enough to understand that Sihanouk would not be able to pull the strings in any future Khmer Rouge-run Cambodia. When Phnom Penh fell to the communists, Pol Pot held secret talks with Kim. The Prince was confined to a state of virtual house arrest within the capital’s Royal Palace.
Nevertheless, Sihanouk was only too happy to return to his North Korean retreat when the Vietnamese Army stormed into Phnom Penh and toppled Pol Pot in 1979. Between then and 1991, he would usually spend at least a couple of months there each year.
Prince Sihanouk is currently being remembered in the obits as a charismatic, sometimes mercurial ruler – but also as a front man for the infamous Pol Pot, on whose watch up to two million Cambodians perished in the mid to late 1970s.
Apologists for the Prince have asserted that, like many western correspondents in Phnom Penh in 1975, underestimated the extremism of Pol Pot and his followers – but the truth is that Sihanouk was happy to provide PR for the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s.
Many of his public statements of support had fatal consequences. In October 1975, Sihanouk flew to the United Nations General Assembly in New York where he painted a knowingly doctored picture of what was actually happening in Cambodia, downplaying the forced marches into the countryside and the brutal restructuring of Khmer society into a vast rural work-camp.
The regime was deeply fearful that expatriate Cambodians would form an opposition-in-exile, and tried to convince as many of them as possible to return home. This was mostly on the pretext that their skills were needed in the rebuilding of a nation smashed flat by incessant US carpet bombing. Hundreds of overseas Cambodians, their reservations allayed by Sihanouk’s words, did return. In most cases they were murdered soon after.
God Kings, Old and New
One day after the former monarch Norodom Sihanouk died of a heart attack in Beijing aged 89, officials including Supreme People’s Assembly President Kim Yong Nam, Party Secretary Choe Tae Bok, Foreign Affairs Minister Pak Ui Chun and numerous other officials called around. Prince Sihanouk himself had issued a private message of condolence soon after the death of Kim Jong-il last December.
If you visit North Korea’s International Frienship Exhibition to see the spectacular array of gifts received by the Kim dynasty, it isn’t surprising to see that the contributions from Cambodia are particularly lavish. In one room, a massive silk tapestry of Angkor Wat dominates the wall.
It reflects the close ties the two nations once had, but one now – after the Cold War – has soured. Cambodia’s strongman prime minister Hun Sen is these days more interested in pursuing South Korean and Japanese investment in his country than honouring the memory of shared struggles against US imperialism.
And it is unlikely that he has forgotten how Kim Il-sung praised Pol Pot for “smashing traitors” in 1977. That same year, he was in the process of defecting to Vietnam to escape increasingly brutal purges against cadres considered too sympathetic to Vietnam. Had he remained in Cambodia, Hun Sen’s bleached skull would probably now be stacked along with thousands of others in the memorial to the ‘Killing Fields’ at Cheoung Ek, south of Phnom Penh.
Up until recently, Cambodia had been a convenient middleman for North Korean smuggling operations. In 1996, the DPRK Embassy in Phnom Penh was found to be harbouring a wanted terrorist, a member of the Japanese Red Army. In July 2002, Hun Sen was forced to close down the Cambodia Shipping Corporation, a private company that offered registry under the Cambodian flag. This came after numerous incidents involving vessels that originated in North Korea. That relationship was largely a legacy of a very different era.
When Norodom Sihanouk was reinstated as king in 1993, he travelled back to Phnom Penh with a phalanx of North Korean bodyguards. His passing marks the end of the special relationship between Cambodia and North Korea – and with no Princes or Great Leaders linking arms, the two nations’ destinies hardly seem linked either.
Tom Farrell, October 2012