PHNOM PENH: On a quiet midweek evening on the streets of the Cambodian capital, the Pyongyang Restaurant is at near capacity.
Inside the square room, adorned with dramatic landscape murals, music starts to blast. Waitresses in bright traditional Korean garb drop their trays and pick up their instruments. With great skill they twirl in formation and belt out odes to the homeland.
It is patriotic, unapologetic North Korea thousands of miles from the secretive state.
This is one of the Pyongyang regime’s money-spinners: Restaurants dotted throughout the world with profits used to raise foreign exchange.
The shadowy proceeds of the evening seem to matter little to the bustling tables of mostly South Korean, Chinese and local customers. This is a curious glance into a nation that dominates world headlines but remains nothing but an odd cliche to most people.
In Cambodia, it is just one small aspect of an unusual relationship with North Korea that has morphed over decades. From what was once a warm mutual friendship, current ties are far more uncertain, underpinned by global tensions and leveraged by the region’s main power player, China.
Now, as Pyongyang finds itself again in the crosshairs of international ire, scrutiny has extended to Phnom Penh to see how it contends with an old ally. The roots run deep, back to the Cold War era.
Late King Norodom Sihanouk had a firmly knitted friendship with the founder of North Korea (DPRK) and long-time supreme leader Kim Il Sung. In 1974, a winter palace was built outside Pyongyang for the monarch and he sought refuge there for many years, bringing back to Cambodia a personal troupe of North Korean bodyguards, whom he trusted more implicitly than their local counterparts.
“For the DPRK to obtain recognition from one of the most ancient monarchies in Asia was a diplomatic gain, never to be forgotten and for which to be grateful for a long time,” said Julio Jeldres, counsellor to the Cabinet of His Majesty the King of Cambodia.
Those royalist ties still hold, though somewhat tenuously. Sihanouk’s son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, now a peripheral figure in national politics, just this month renewed royalist ties with a high-ranking DPRK diplomat.
Reaching out to a diminished power in Cambodian politics for “moral support” is an act of desperation from Pyongyang, according to Jeldres. “North Korea feels isolated now and is seeking to gain support from any sources that can give such support,” he said.
“Today, the same personal relationship that existed between the leaders of Cambodia and the DPRK does not exist.”
It is true that the Hun Sen-led government is hardly as embracing as the former king. Yet, still Pyongyang keeps popping its head up in the country.
Just a few miles away from Cambodia’s national treasure, the Angkor Wat temple complex, lies another imprint of the Korean regime’s soft power projections.
The Angkor Panorama museum is a US$24 million project bankrolled by the Mansudae Overseas Project Group, North Korea's propaganda construction group, in grand cooperation with the Cambodian government.
Opened in December last year, it is a celebration of the ancient Angkor empire with one especially striking and epic 120m mosaic. This is no site for explicit propaganda. But the profits are set to flow back to Pyongyang for the first decade of the museum’s operation, no matter how measly they are from the as-yet rarely visited site.
This type of small commercial enterprise is one many countries do not allow North Korea to set up. Yet Cambodia “permits” it to “retain a quiet, vestigial friendship with North Korea”, according to Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
“But if the relationship became a burden, it would show no hesitation in cutting off what few ties remain,” he said.
North Korea though has been an irritant in recent years on several occasions, testing Cambodia’s resolve to walk a delicate path of equilibrium with a nation considered a “pariah” by the United States.
In July 2016 it was revealed the kingdom was one of the nations to which Pyongyang had dispatched supposed assassins to launch terror attacks against defectors and South Koreans. That same month, a proposed visit by DPRK foreign minister Ri Yong Ho was rejected by the Cambodian government.
In August, North Korean vessel Jie Shun, sailing under a Cambodian flag, was seized carrying a large shipment of munitions. That action coincided with an end to the kingdom’s flag convenience scheme, known to have assisted North Korea smuggle drugs and weapons throughout the world for years.
Cambodia has also found itself oddly embroiled in the killing of Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother, Kim Jong Nam, in February at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport.
At least one of the two women who eventually carried out the assassination using a deadly nerve agent was known to be in Phnom Penh shortly before the attack.
Asked about ongoing investigations in Phnom Penh, police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said he had no knowledge of the case. “I haven’t heard about this,” he said.
The extent to which the plot has formed or rehearsed in Cambodia remains unclear. So too do the reasons why those masterminding the killing chose Cambodia to induct her.
“Cambodia has traditionally been an off-the-radar meeting ground for Islamist terrorists and North Korean elements,” said Geoffrey Caine, a journalist who specialises in Korean affairs.
“Foreign intelligence and diplomats have geared many of their problems to sewing up its porous borders and enforcing the rule of law. But the fact is that Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International.”
Still, these dubious incidents, in clear view of the world, could wear down the Cambodian government’s patience with a partner that no longer serves them much purpose or musters much rapport.
The government could cast North Korea adrift at any point.
‘JUST A FRIEND’
The Kim Jong Nam killing has further frayed DPRK ties with Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia. With Cambodia toying precariously with ASEAN solidarity by taking Beijing’s side in the South China Sea contest, the government might be better served holding tight with its neighbours, said Chheang Vannarith from the Cambodian Institute of Strategic Studies.
“North Korea-ASEAN relations are worsening. It is not in Cambodia's interest to align itself with North Korea,” he said.
Already, it has developed strong economic ties to South Korea and publicly denounced the North’s nuclear program – in a soft tone nevertheless.
“We asked North Korea, a friendly country, to reason with us,” said foreign ministry spokesman Chum Sounry after a bilateral meeting in January.
“(North Korea) is just a friend, but when a friend does a wrongdoing, Cambodia doesn’t support it and condemns it,” Cambodia government spokesman Phay Siphan told reporters last year.
That attitude means the likelihood of Cambodia stepping into a mediation void to help settle an inter-Korean dispute, as some observers have suggested as a solution, has likely drifted out of the realm of possibility.
“I doubt very much that the North Koreans would listen to the Cambodians. The only actor with considerable weight to influence North Korea is China,” Jeldres said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has appeared more willing to wade into the global debate but has stayed true to his non-interventionist mantra, which comes thick with criticism of perceived US aggression. His lead now largely comes from Beijing, increasingly propping up Cambodia with no-strings attached investment and loans.
Analysts say the motives for Cambodia’s posturing are purely economic rather than being based on values or moral order.
“Cambodian foreign policy comes down to getting the patronage of the highest bidder. It's mostly absent of principles and actual policies,” Caine said.
“It's all about who gives Cambodia the most money. North Korea has little to offer these days.”
What is left, in plain view at least, are the outposts – the museum and handful of restaurants dribbling dollars back to the fatherland, poor fragments of the type of status North Korea once enjoyed here.
As the customers trickle out of Pyongyang Restaurant, the waitresses that had just dazzled with their performances return to their more mundane duties.
Patriotic tunes again seep from the inner sanctum of the building, this time recorded and played through speakers, and for the benefit of the staff members rather than the patrons.
They are all believed to live in a nearby compound, still isolated from the outside world and not allowed to roam freely in Phnom Penh or mingle with local population.
They are here but not really, far from the turbulence of global politics yet still firmly in the constrained orbit of their rulers. Cambodia, indeed, is a strange place to call home.