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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kingdom abstains on NK vote

People look at a notice board outside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Embassy earlier this month in Phnom Penh
People look at a notice board outside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Embassy earlier this month in Phnom Penh. Eli Meixler

Kingdom abstains on NK vote

The Cambodian delegation to the UN has abstained from voting on a historic resolution encouraging international action on the abysmal state of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the latest sign of the complicated relationship between the Kingdom and the Hermit Kingdom.

Though unbinding, the resolution – passed Tuesday in New York in what was described as a “heated debate” in a General Assembly committee – supports forwarding to the Security Council an extensive Commission of Inquiry released by the UN earlier this year that details widespread abuses, including beatings, starvation, killings and a Gulag system of labour camps in North Korea.

The resolution urges the Security Council to take action through the International Criminal Court in the Hague and with targeted sanctions against those most responsible for the rights abuses. With China and Russia, both of which have veto power, on the council, however, it is unlikely to pass. They were two of only 19 nations to vote against the resolution, which North Korea dismissed as groundless.

Other than the “no” votes and the 111 in favour, there were 55 abstentions, of which Cambodia was one. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, posted a photo on Twitter of the voting board and wrote “Profile in cowardice,” before mentioning several countries that chose to abstain.

Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said in an email that “it’s hard to know” what Cambodia had in mind with its middle-of-the-road choice, but either route puts the country in an awkward position.

“The situation in North Korea is as bad as it gets, so it’s hard to vote no unless Hun Sen wants to be seen as trying to protect the world’s worst regime. He should have voted 'yes' like Thailand and the Philippines did,” Adams said. “But voting 'yes' suggests that Hun Sen thinks the UN should be involved in addressing abuses and impunity, which hits close to home given the allegations against him.”

Lastly, Adams brought up the warm ties between the late monarch Norodom Sihanouk and North Korea’s government. These ties were so strong that, in 1991, Sihanouk granted the North Koreans a 20-year rent-free lease on their embassy in Phnom Penh, which the Post reported earlier this month is still being lived in long past the deal’s expiration date.

However, during the Vietnamese occupation, Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge were allied against Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which might make the ruling government more hesitant to side outright, along with China and Russia, Sihanouk’s old friends.

“Remember also that NK was a longtime supporter of Sihanouk while he was fighting a war with the CPP in the 1980s, something Hun Sen probably hasn’t forgotten.”

When Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong was asked why the delegation at the UN abstained, he said he didn’t know and would “check”.

Koy Kuong did not return calls seeking further clarification.

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