Clockwise from top: The King Father being welcomed to Pyongyang in 1970.
It was 1965 in Jakarta - at the 10th Anniversary of the creation of the Non-Aligned-Movement
- that King Norodom Sihanouk first met North Korean President Kim Il Sung.
Except for Sihanouk, the rest of the world figures from that landmark gathering and
movement - Indonesia's President Sukarno, Yugoslavia's Tito, Egypt's Nasser, India's
Nehru, Kim Il Sung, and China's Zhou En Lai - are now dead.
But for Sihanouk, the event launched a long and valued friendship between North Korea
and Cambodia, a relationship that has affected the foreign policy of both countries
at key moments in their tumultuous histories and that continues today as the North
Korean regime seeks better relations in the region.
After the 1965 meeting, Cambodia almost immediately decided to give diplomatic recognition
to North Korea and withdraw it from South Korea, a political debt that was never
forgotten by Kim Il Sung and was repaid often over the years to Sihanouk - both personally
"The relationship was based purely on the friendship between the two leaders
and the support they gave to each other during difficult times," said Ambassador
Julio A. Jeldres, the official biographer of Norodom Sihanouk. "It is a unique
relationship because it is not based in ideology, strategic interest, or trade interests."
In 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge, North Korea
risked the ire of the rest of the Eastern block to give its support to the new Coalition
Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) - the Cambodian struggle against the
Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia.
"North Korea risked its long-lasting relationship with Vietnam, a socialist
comrade, to extend support to Sihanouk and the coalition government over
which he presided," explained Jeldres.
In 1980 the Soviet Union officially asked North Korea to shut the door on Sihanouk.
Although at the time North Korea was receiving extensive assistance from the Soviet
Union as well as other Communist and Socialist countries, Kim Il Sung refused, telling
his powerful benefactors that "our Communism is not honorable unless it supports
the patriots like Sihanouk who struggle for the independence of their country and
the freedom of his people," according to Jeldres.
The King Father and the late President Kim Il Sung.
In 1974, President Kim Il Sung built a 60-room palace for Sihanouk fronting on Lake
Chhang Sou On in the mountains 45 minutes outside of Pyongyang.
According to Bertil Lintner, author of Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North
Korea Under the Kim Clan, it was the palace that Sihanouk fled to in January 1979
following the Vietnamese invasion.
"When Sihanouk triumphantly returned to Phnom Penh in 1991, he came with North
Korean escorts, both as personal bodyguards and as diplomats, who took up residence
in a huge new embassy built for them near the Independence Monument in downtown Phnom
Penh," said Lintner. In 1993, when Sihanouk was officially reinstalled as the
king of Cambodia, he surrounded himself in the country "with people he knew
he could trust - North Korean bodyguards," Lintner said.
The 85-year-old retired king still visits his North Korean palace, though less frequently
than when he was younger.
"Between 1979 and 1991, His Majesty spent at least two months every year at
Chhang Sou On, and sometimes more time. It's a very relaxing spot, conducive to writing
and sports. His Majesty used to play a lot of badminton there and in the 1980s
he made several films with the assistance of the Korean Film Studios," said
With the King-Father now officially retired from politics, his son King Norodom Sihamoni
appears keen to maintain the relationship with Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il.
Only a few months ago, during the Festival of the Sun - a national holiday in North
Korea marking the anniversary of the birth of the "Great Leader Kim Il Sung"
- King Sihamoni sent a "Dear Leader" letter to Kim Jong Il - a letter whose
ornate language and flowery praise contrasts starkly with the usual tone taken by
Heads of State to the reclusive North Korean leadership.
"[Kim Il Sung] mobilized his valiant people in favor of reconstruction and prodigious
development under the radiant philosophy of Juche," Sihamoni wrote in the August
3, 2007 letter. "He offers an irreplaceable example of solidarity and a fraternity
between all nations and people in search of peace, liberty and justice," the
The so-called Juche Idea is the official ideology of North Korea and its political
system. Scholars outside North Korea often equate Juche with Stalinism. Juche literally
means "main body" or "subject," although it is also translated
as "independent stand" and the "spirit of self-reliance."
Despite the history, the two countries have not yet developed many economic ties.
"With the economic sector, so far there has not been much," Cambodia's
Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said October 25 following a meeting with North Korean
Ambassador Ri In-Sok in Phnom Penh.
But with North Korean Prime Minister Kim Yong Il's current visit, it seems only a
matter of time before a new level of commerce develops.