The Diplomat magazine published a story on February 16, 2024, titled “US Sanctions and Rallying Around the Flag in North Korea and Cambodia.” The author of the piece quoted a former member of the Cambodian opposition party who is now living in exile, making a blatant comparison between North Korea and Cambodia. 

North Korea and Cambodia are two distinct nations with differing foreign policies, political environments, human rights situations, economic conditions, and standards of living, among other differences. Because of these and other factors, it is impossible to draw comparisons between North Korea and Cambodia, and the author of the aforementioned piece ought to do more research on the country. 

It is crucial to examine the historical backgrounds of both North Korea and Cambodia in order to fully appreciate the intricacies of the comparison.

Cambodia has a rich cultural legacy, has seen turbulent times in the past brought on by the horrific Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot. Millions of people died during this terrible time in Cambodian history as a result of mass murder and genocide, leaving a lasting psychological scar.

Under the dictatorial reign of the Kim dynasty, North Korea, a secluded nation in East Asia, has been shrouded in mystery and isolation.

A severe gap exists between the ruling class and the impoverished populace as a result of the regime’s severe information control and repressive tactics, which have also resulted in numerous violations of human rights. 

It is clear from examining the socioeconomic aspects of North Korea and Cambodia that these two countries live in quite different worlds.

In recent years, Cambodia – a nation with a turbulent past and a bright future – has been progressively reconstructing its infrastructure and economy. The vibrant markets, booming travel and tourism sector, and rising inflow of foreign capital represent Cambodia’s tenacity and development.

Whereas the socioeconomic environment in North Korea is radically different and is marked by resource scarcity, tight government control, and isolation. International sanctions and a concentrated economy have led to severe poverty, food shortages, and little prospects for economic growth. 

North Korea’s economy is mostly dependent on government-controlled businesses including mining, agriculture, and manufacturing, whereas Cambodia’s economy is driven by industries like textiles, agriculture, and tourism. North Korea’s economic stagnation and reliance on foreign aid are partly caused by its lack of economic diversification.

Furthermore, important metrics like the human development index, GDP per capita, and poverty rates also show the socioeconomic differences between the two countries. While North Korea’s closed-off attitude and emphasis on military expenditure have hampered its economic progress and societal well-being, Cambodia has improved living standards and social development indices as a result of its efforts to embrace market reforms and attract foreign investment. 

Examining the political and human rights environments of North Korea and Cambodia reveals notable distinctions that highlight the different trajectories these nations have followed. Cambodia has experienced difficulties of its own, especially considering the turbulent past left by the Khmer Rouge dictatorship. Nonetheless, improvements in human rights circumstances and democratisation have been made in Cambodia in recent years.

North Korea continues to be among the world’s most isolated and repressive governments, with strict government control over almost every aspect of the lives of its people. Reports of political persecution, forced labour camps, and significant limitations on the freedom of speech and travel are among the many examples of widespread violations of human rights. 

There is one important thing that we should take into account for both Cambodia and North Korea: it is crucial to examine how nations like North Korea and Cambodia are portrayed in the media in the western countries in order to comprehend and draw comparisons between them. The public’s view is greatly influenced by the media, which frequently creates unfair and skewed comparisons between other countries.

People in Cambodia, a nation rooted in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, place a high importance on community, harmony, and deference to authority. Cambodian culture places a strong focus on interpersonal connections and collectivism, which is seen in everything from family interactions to corporate operations. 

A highly centralised regime that upholds a rigid power structure, ideological conformity, and state loyalty shapes the cultural environment of North Korea. Individual expression is strictly restricted in this society, where devotion to the regime is of the utmost importance, due to the pervasive influence of the ruling Kim dynasty and the state-controlled media.

It is clear from analysing these cultural impacts that consideration needs to be given to the environment in which attitudes and actions are formed.

In one nation, actions that may appear unreasonable or oppressive may have their origins in political beliefs, historical occurrences, or culturally specific social norms. 

It is important to look at the global effects and ramifications that go beyond the boundaries of these countries when comparing North Korea with Cambodia.

Both nations have attracted attention from around the world for rather different reasons. North Korea’s secretive government and aggressive activities frequently make headlines, while Cambodia’s history is characterised by independence movements, civil wars, and the horrific Khmer Rouge rule.

Foreign governments, NGOs, and relief organisations have expressed support for Cambodia because of its history of conflict and rehabilitation. The Khmer Rouge regime’s legacy still affects Cambodian society and has spurred attempts at development, justice, and reconciliation. 

Before passing judgment, it’s critical to completely comprehend the facts of each situation because, on occasion, our prejudiced interpretations can encourage others to hold incorrect opinions. In a political rivalry, we have the power to assassinate our rival by fabricating tales to paint our opponent in a negative light.

However, it is unfair if the victim we choose to kill is a docile or someone who did not do the same error as our allegation. In this world, morality and justice ought to be valued and improved for every country and every individual.

Seun Sam is an international policy researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia. 

The views expressed are solely his own.