Enigmatic North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack on Saturday at 69 years of age, North Korean state media reported yesterday.
While it’s a death unlikely to result in an outpouring of grief worldwide, Cambodia has been one of the few countries to maintain steadfastly friendly relations with the isolated and impoverished communist state and the family that has ruled it for some 60 years.
Phnom Penh and Pyongyang have had a unique relationship ever since King Father Norodom Sihanouk and Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il’s late father, met in 1965 at a banquet hosted by then-Indonesian President Sukarno in Jakarta for the 10th anniversary of the Afro-Asian or “Bandung” Conference, which supported an anti-colonialist, non-aligned movement.
“The King Father has fostered great diplomatic relations with North Korea since the late 1960s. Kim Jong Il was not only a great leader of Korea but was also a close friend to King Father,” Sisowath Thomico, advisor to the King Father told the Post. “I am sure that the King Father will send a condolence letter at the passing of Kim Jong Il.”
Kim Jong Il’s sudden death on Saturday from what the state-run news agency termed “physical and mental over-work” occurred while he was traveling by train to give field guidance in the North Korean countryside.
His youngest son, Kim Jong-un, was named by the official KCNA news agency as the “great successor” to his father, and will be the third in a dynasty that has ruled the reclusive, nuclear-weapon state since the 1950s.
Kim Jong-Il is known to have harboured the same appreciation for the arts as his father, a commonality central to the close bond between the senior Kim and Sihanouk in the ’60s.
Sihanouk himself penned a number of musical scores and lyrics in 1970 celebrating the “friendship and fraternity” between Cambodia and North Korea. The compositions included Homage of Khmers to Marshal Kim Il-Sung and Korea and Cambodia Are Revolutionary Comrades-in-Arms.
Kim Jong-Il’s father had a 60-room palace constructed on the outskirts of Pyongyang for Sihanouk during his exile after being ousted by the Lon Nol-led coup in Cambodia in 1970. The palace, completed in 1974, reportedly contains a Buddhist temple, a gymnasium and an indoor cinema.
Sihanouk returned to the palace in 1979 after the Khmer Rouge regime, for which he was a nominal head-of-state, was ousted by a Vietnamese-backed overthrow. From then, until his return to Cambodia in 1991, the King Father regularly holidayed at the palace, including a three-month stint in 1988 where he directed and produced The Mysterious City, a Khmer-tragedy set in the 1950s and performed by North Korean actors.
When Sihanouk did return to Phnom Penh in 1991, he reportedly came with a coterie of North Korean bodyguards who later took up residence in what continues to be the North Korean embassy near Independence Monument.
The capital even boasts a Kim Il Sung Blvd (Street 289).
Strong relations between Cambodia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have continued under Kim Jong Il, who assumed leadership after the death of his father in 1994.
In 2004, during a 115-day stay, KCNA reported that Sihanouk awarded Kim Jong Il “The Grand Cross Order of the Kingdom of Cambodia” and “The Grand Necklace Order for National Independence of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” the highest orders of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
In October this year, Kim Jong Il’s work The Workers’ Party of Korea Is a Juche-Type Revolutionary Party Which Inherited the Glorious Tradition of the DIU was reprinted in Khmer by the Antri Miek Publishing House of Cambodia.
Cambodia is one of the few countries, alongside China and Russia, with which North Korea continues to enjoy modern diplomatic ties. Indeed, the death of the “Dear Leader” will not have any negative impact on the bilateral relationship between Phnom Penh and Pyongyang, officials said yesterday.
Ek Tha, a spokesman and a deputy director of the press department of the Council of Ministers, told the Post: “Kim Jong Il has died, but the friendship and bilateral cooperation between North Korea and Cambodia will never die.
“North Korea is a sovereign country and can make whatever political decisions it needs to for the good of their land – they know what is best for them,” Ek Tha said. “But for us, we have a relationship that has been improving, and over time this has opened up many opportunities for bilateral trade.”
Minister of Information and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the passing of Kim Jong Il was a “great loss”.
“We hope that his plans to act as a mediator for reconciliation of the two Koreas continue in the interest of the peninsula, Asia and the world,” Khieu Kanharith said.
Additional reporting from Bloomberg