Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

Mansudae ODG building Angkor e-museum

Sunday, December 6th, 2015


Pictured Above (Google Earth, 2012-10-26): An image of the Angkor E-Museum under construction in Siem Reap Cambodia

UPDATE 7 (2016-2-1): The Guardian publishes more information on the museum.

UPDATE 6 (2015-12-6): The museum opens! According to the Khmer Times:

After five years of building and delays, the $24 million Angkor Panorama Museum in Siem Reap was opened on Friday by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, cementing growing ties between the Kingdom and North Korea, especially in Siem Reap.

Mr. Sok An said the 6,000 square meter building reinforced both cultural and economic ties.

The project was signed in 2011, under which North Korea’s Mansudea Overseas Project Group will run the museum with the government under a build-operate-and-transfer operation for 10 years until it is handed over to the Apsara Authority.

In the meantime, profits will be split evenly.

“We did not sell this land. We have a joint committee and we studied the investment project on all fronts before the government approved it. We treat foreign investment equally,” said Mr. Sok An.

“We need more tourist products such as this to attract visitors to Cambodia. The museum… is another tourism attraction that features, through the painting [mural] inside the museum, how our Khmer ancestors went about their daily activities during Angkorian time,” he said at the opening ceremony attended by an estimated 1,000 people, including South and North Koreans.

The project caused concern with South Korea, fearing it could be used for propaganda in the province, which is the country’s biggest tourist attraction. The Angkor Wat temple complex was listed for protection by the UN cultural organization UNESCO in 1992.

The new museumincludes work from 63 North Korean artists.

North Korean ambassador Hong Ki Chol told the crowd: “It was well built in a picturesque place, surrounded by Angkor temples – the pride of Khmers. We are proud that this museum was built to show Cambodian culture in the prestigious era of Angkor.”

“I am confident the museum will make a positive contribution to giving a comprehensive understanding of ideas about all the Angkor temples and promote tourism,” he said.

Cambodia received 4.5 million tourists last year, a 20 percent increase on the previous year and accounting for about 16 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The Kingdom is targeting 8 million tourists by 2020.

“We want to see tourists stay longer in Cambodia,” said Mr. Sok An, who is also chairman of the Apsara Authority. ”The longer they stay, the more it benefits our people and the economy.”

UPDATE 5 (2014-6-14): The museum is still not open. According to an article in the Phnom Penh Post:

Siem Reap is home to North Korea’s first overseas museum, a $15 million tribute to Angkor set in a Khmer-style building which is not yet open to the public.

Although construction began in August 2011, the doors have still not opened and the car park has not been built.

The operations manager, who gave his name only as Kim, said the museum would open in three or four months, and blamed the delay on the unfinished car park and ticketing booth.

But sources within the South Korean community say the slow progress is due to the plan to build an information centre about the temples, which has caused a rift with the Apsara authority, which manages the complex.

UPDATE 4 (2104-1-20): It is January 2014, and the Museum still has not opened. A recent visitor, however, offers images of the museum and some details. According to the article:

The Grand Panorama Museum is a gift to cement the “glorious friendship between Korea and Cambodia”, says a young translator from Pyongyang, capital of the hermit state.

The building site is still strictly off-limits as I visit but, despite the secrecy, the man in charge relents and provides a short tour.

The museum is right next to the new ticket booths for the temple complex. The avowed aim is to take visitors back to the heyday of Khmer culture, which flourished in Angkor between the 12th and 15th centuries.

The museum’s interpretation is not so much scholarly as glitzy, with otherworldly music and coloured lights. It also showcases the North Korean style of ultra-realist painting. A huge face of the Buddha looms at the entrance.

“A true-scale copy of the stone-hewn figures at the Bayon Temple,” says the building chief. The giant painting looks remarkably like a photograph. “Exactly,” beams the official. “But it’s not a photograph – it’s Korean art.”

The big Buddha is a product of the Mansudae art factory in Pyongyang, which employs a thousand artists turning out paintings in oil, acrylic and watercolours in the “social realist” style. Abstraction is not allowed.

The panorama is viewed from a platform in the centre of a circular room. The entire wall is a single vast picture, 13 metres tall and 130 long. It depicts the many temples and everyday scenes from the 12th-century Khmer era – or at least daily life as imagined by North Korean artists.

The official word is that all the scenes were painted “following consultations with Cambodian historians”, the site supervisor is anxious to point out. The finished product is strong on battles, with lots of bloodshed.

“We have a panoramic museum like this in Pyongyang too,” says the supervisor. Is it about ancient Korean history? “No, it’s about the Americans’ war.”

The illusion of being at the centre of the Khmer empire is extended by all manner of fake walls, cannons and plastic trees between the raised platform and the panorama wall. The models carefully match the objects visible in the painted panorama.

“We will have wind and fog-making machines so that the trees will rustle,” says the young translator.

The museum also offers scale models of the sprawling temple complex and a 3D theatre where films depicting temple construction will be screened.

North Korean art is on sale in the foyer, along with cute souvenir dolls dressed in what the North Koreans say is the authentic Khmer national costume.

One huge oil painting in the shop is definitely not for sale. It depicts a snow-covered landscape in Korea’s mountains with a little hut in the foreground highlighted by a shaft of sunlight.

“That is the birthplace of our Great Leader,” the supervisor says reverently. “The picture is here on loan.” The late North Korean founding father Kim Il-sung is revered like a god.

The article offers some pictures as well:



UPDATE 3 (2013-1-8): NK News explains some of the features the museum will contain and reports that it will open in April 2013.

UPDATE 2 (2011-11-26): Accoridng to AKP (Cambodia):

Cambodia has allowed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to build a cultural information centre (or welcome centre) in Siem Reap, the home of Angkor, as part of the government’s effort to attract more tourists, according to the Press and Quick Reaction Unit of the Council of Ministers.

In a meeting on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister H.E. Dr. Sok An told the North Korean Ambassador H.E. Ri In Sok that Cambodia’s Apsara Authority is working with North Korean experts to build the centre, which will serve as a welcome centre for tourists who want information about Cambodia’s Angkorian history.

Officials of the Apsara Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap are working with 60 Korean experts and concerned institutions to ensure that the building design will feature the cultural values of both Cambodia and Korea.

The building, 70 metres in diameter and 124 metres in height, will be decorated with artistic works and drawings. Korean officials say that the world’s biggest artistic drawing will be displayed at the centre.

Dr. Sok An, who is also Minister in Charge of the Office of the Council of Ministers, told the ambassador that the centre will represent not only the image of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea but also the good bilateral relations of the two Asian nations.

The outgoing North Korean Ambassador Ri In Sok, who is leaving Cambodia on Nov. 26 after a four-year term, told Dr. Sok An that North Korea wants unification with South Korea as soon as possible.

The ambassador was grateful to the deputy prime minister and the Royal Government of Cambodia as a whole for facilitating his diplomatic mission in Cambodia.

“I am pleased with the bilateral cooperation. I am pleased with the tremendous progress made by Cambodia over the past years,” said Ambassador Ri In Sok in the meeting.

The ambassador said the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continues its good relations with the Royal Government of Cambodia thanks to the diplomatic legacy of the relations between His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk, now retired, and the late Kim Il-Sung, leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Additional information:

1. Voice of America also picked up this story

2. NK Leadership Watch also covered the story.

3. The Mansudae Overseas Development Group (MODG) is also building/has already built an e-museum in Siem REap. Learn more here.

4. Here are previous posts on the DPRK and Cambodia.

UPDATE 1 (2011-8-3): Construction is underway on the project.  According to the Global Post:

A wall of royal blue sheet metal obscures the North Koreans’ operation from public view. When I approached the entrance, a man in a fedora and a tank top rushed over to slam the gate shut. A furtive look inside revealed fewer than a dozen scrawny workers and a scrub grass field still void of much construction.

Though local reports vary, North Korea will be paid between $10 and $17 million for some sort of monument or museum near the temples. The head of Cambodia’s culture ministry, Khem Sarith, confirmed construction of an “e-museum” but could not confirm the cost.

Nor could he explain why a country that offers its citizens scant electricity should win an “electronic museum” contract, especially after its monuments abroad have drawn both condemnation and ridicule.

The full story is well worth reading here:
North Korea propaganda unit builds monuments abroad
Global Post
Patrick Winn

ORIGINAL POST (2010-4-27): According to the AFP (Via the Straits Times in Singapore):

A controlversial North Korean construction company is in talks to build an ‘e-museum’ of Cambodia’s famed Angkor temples, a senior official said on Monday.

Mansudae Overseas Projects wants to build a museum close to the temple complex that will feature a computer-generated simulation of the ancient monuments, Cambodian Culture Ministry secretary of state Khem Sarith told AFP.

‘They have plans to build an electronic museum detailing the history of Angkor Wat temples,’ he said, adding he supported the plans after discussions last week with a company delegation and North Korean ambassador Ri In Sok.

Previous work by the North Korean company building major monuments in African countries has been criticised for lack of transparency. Its 49-metre bronze Monument for the African Renaissance has caused outrage in Senegal over the sale of government land to finance the project and the president’s plan to keep 35 per cent of any profit it generates.

Mr Khem Sarith said the so-called e-museum would be ‘good for tourists to view the temples and then select the one that they want to see’. Studies and more discussion were still needed before construction could start on the digitally-rendered overview, Khem Sarith said. He said he would meet again with officials from the company in June to discuss the project further.

The 12th century Angkor Wat temple complex is Cambodia’s main tourist attraction. It is located in the northwestern province of Siem Reap, where the ancient Khmer empire built some 1,000 temples spread over 160 square kilometres.

I have pretty extensive list of Mansudae Overseas Development Group projects from across the planet.  If you are aware of a North Korean built project in your country, please let me know.

(Thanks to a reader)

Read the full story here:
‘e-museum’ of Angkor temples
AFP (Straits Times)
John Cosgrove


Cambodia and DPRK emigration

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Sebastian Strangio points out a few interesting facts in the Asia Times about DPRK defection through Cambodia:

1. The Cambodian government has quietly worked to facilitate the processing of North Koreans as they move onto South Korea.

According to the US cables, the processing of North Korean arrivals is done in a quiet, ad hoc manner. In an October 2006 dispatch (06PHNOMPENH1927), Om Yentieng, one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s advisors, was quoted as saying that the processing of North Koreans in Cambodia was “the result of an understanding reached between the prime minister and the South Korean ambassador to Cambodia”.

Secrecy was clearly a priority for the South Koreans. In a July 2007 cable (07PHNOMPENH925) documenting a meeting between South Korean and US officials to discuss the fate of five North Korean refugees in Cambodia who were seeking resettlement in the US, the South Koreans were “preoccupied with conveying their desire that the ROK [Republic of Korea – South Korea] pipeline for North Korean refugees not be publicly revealed”. They also demanded it remain separate from Washington’s own North Korean “refugee processing pipeline”.

A dispatch from April 2008 (08PHNOMPENH316) expressed gratitude to Cambodian officials for “expeditiously processing” the exit permits of two North Korean individuals who departed for the US on April 16. American officials were also “impressed” at Cambodian immigration officials’ “discreet handling” of the cases of another group of North Koreans who departed the previous November.

“During the quiet November departure, no one at the airport noticed the North Koreans’ comings and goings,” it stated. (According to figures released by the Office of Immigration Statistics at the Department of Homeland Security in May, the US resettled more than 100 North Korean refugees between 2006 and 2010 under legislation to help improve human rights conditions in the reclusive country.)

2. Cambodia is no longer a major hub in the underground railraod.  Thailand is now the prefered destination.

It appears, however, that Cambodia has since declined in importance as a conduit for North Korean defectors in favor of a route through Laos into northern Thailand. Pastor Chun Ki-won, head of the Seoul-based refugee aid group Durihana said that Cambodia – along with Mongolia – was one of the few Asian countries willing to aid North Koreans at the start of the 2000s when refugee flows were still relatively low.

Durihana has helped around 900 North Korean defectors reach South Korea over the years. Chun’s first aid mission, which he undertook in July 2001, involved the smuggling of a North Korean woman and her child from northeast China to Phnom Penh via Vietnam. Cambodia increased in importance after December 2001, Chun said, when he was arrested in a Chinese crackdown trying to smuggle a group of refugees across the Mongolian border.

Chun said that due to increased vigilance by Vietnamese authorities, most North Korean refugees now arrive in Southeast Asia via Laos and Thailand. The claim is mirrored in figures from the Thai Immigration Bureau which reveal a 50-fold increase in North Korean arrivals from Laos, from 46 in 2004 – around the time arrivals in Cambodia seem to have begun their decline – to 2,482 in 2010. 870 North Korean refugee arrivals have already been recorded between January and April of this year.

In a 2006 cable from the US consulate in Chiang Mai (06CHIANGMAI79), one official predicted that the increase in North Korean refugee arrivals – then still fairly contained – “may yet be the tip of the iceberg”. “[E]vidence suggests that the stream of refugees is unlikely to decrease, with a network of Christian missionary organizations in Thailand and southern China cooperating to bring in more refugees through Yunnan province, Burma [Myanmar], and Laos and into Thailand’s Chiang Rai province,” the cable stated.

Read the full story here:
All aboard North Korea’s refugee railroad
Asia Times
Sebastian Strangio


DPRK offers barter for rice deal to Cambodia

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Pictured above (Google Earth): Kumsong Tractor Plant (금성뜨락또르공장).  See in Google Maps here.

According to Reuters:

North Korea wants to import Cambodian rice to try to ease food shortages and has offered in return to provide machinery and expertise to develop Cambodia’s fledgling mining and energy sectors, a Cambodian official said on Wednesday.

A North Korean delegation led by Deputy Trade Minister Ri Myong-san visited Cambodia this week and the country is keen to import rice as soon as possible, said Ouch Borith, Cambodia’s secretary of state for foreign affairs.

It would help Cambodia develop its mining sector and invest in hydropower dams.

The amount of rice North Korea wanted to import was not disclosed, he said. Further specific details, such as how North Korea would fund its purchases and investments, were not available.

Cambodia is the world’s 15th biggest producer of rice and has set a target of exporting 1 million tonnes of the grain within the next four years.

According to the Economic Institute of Cambodia (EIC), an independent think tank, the country is expected to ship about 100,000 tonnes of milled rice this year, up from 50,000 tonnes in 2010. More goes to Vietnam to be milled and shipped from there.

North Korea is one of the world’s poorest countries and it rarely produces enough food to feed its 24 million people, often as a result of bad weather affecting harvests.

International sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme combined with neighbouring South Korea’s refusal to provide help have led to a substantial decline in food aid from its traditional donors.

Although Cambodia and North Korea have no trade ties, they have a diplomatic relationship. Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk has a house in North Korea and was once a special guest of the country’s late ruler, Kim Il-sung.

Ouch Borith said North Korea had offered to sell agricultural machinery to Cambodia, such as tractors, at cheaper prices than Western countries and wanted to provide expertise in developing mines.

“We have only small and medium-sized enterprises, not big industries, but Cambodia’s natural resources are huge, such as minerals, gold, iron and aluminum,” he told reporters.

“Our friends the Koreans said they would do studies and use their experience to help Cambodia make an industry from these natural resources.”

Agriculture forms the biggest part of Cambodia’s $10 billion economy, followed by tourism and garment manufacturing, but it is also trying to develop its energy and mining sectors.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea wants to buy Cambodian rice, invest in mining


DPRK trade delegation visits Cambodia to start economic ties

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

According to Xinhua:

A trade delegation of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) led by Vice Minister of Foreign Trade Ri Myong San on Tuesday started a visit in Cambodia in order to commence trade and investment ties with the country.

During a meeting with Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong, who is also the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, on Tuesday, Ri Myong San said the visit was to find possibility to start economic relations with Cambodia, especially on the development of agriculture, trade and investment.

Meanwhile, Hor Namhong said that Cambodia welcomed DPRK in starting trade ties with Cambodia for mutual interests of the two peoples.

Ouch Borith, a secretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, told reporters after the meeting that the DPRK delegation would hold the first-ever Cambodia and DPRK Joint Committee meeting on July 27 in order to discuss and explore trade and investment opportunities between the two nations.

“It will be the first meeting since the two countries signed the agreement in 1993 to establish the Cambodia-DPRK Joint Committee,” he said. “So far, the trade exchange between Cambodia and DPRK is zero.”

According to the trade statistics from the Ministry of Commerce, there is no any record of trade transaction between the two countries.

On the investment side, earlier this year, the DPRK’s Mansudae New Tech Corporation has invested 17 million U.S. dollars to build an e-museum in Siem Reap province, according to the figure from the Council for the Development of Cambodia.

The DPRK delegation arrived here on Monday and will leave here on Thursday.

Read the full story here:
DPRK trade delegation visits Cambodia to start economic ties


ROK government encouraging DPRK restaurant boycott

Monday, January 10th, 2011

According to the Choson Ilbo:

Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second largest city near the sprawling ruins of the Angkor Wat, has two North Korean restaurants, down from three since North Korea recalled all their expat staff after Kim Jong-il’s stroke in 2008 and returned only the employees of two of them. The restaurants rely on South Korean tourists for business since the town is a popular destination for them.

One of them, called Restaurant Pyongyang, sells the famous cold noodles or naengmyeon for US$7 a dish, while North Korean dancers perform and pour drinks for customers. It used to be a regular stopover for South Korean tourists, with tour agencies charging $30 for a visit and a meal. One tour guide said, “In Cambodia $7 a dish is already pretty expensive, but many tourists go to the restaurant because of its attractions.”

After North Korea’s sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan in March last year, the South Korean Embassy in Cambodia asked tour agencies and South Korean residents’ association there to avoid sending visitors from the South there, but local sources say the plea fell largely on deaf ears. But the North’s artillery attack on Yeonpyong Island in November last year finally did the trick. The South Korean residents’ association in Siem Reap voluntarily boycotted the North Korean restaurants, and tour agencies also voluntarily took them off their itinerary.

The restaurants are apparently suffering. A member of the South Korean residents’ association said, “Almost all of the customers were South Korean tourists, but it seems that even the performances have stopped now there are no customers.”

Around 120,000 South Koreans a year reportedly visited the two restaurants, contributing to an estimated W200-300 million (US$1=W1,126) in monthly sales. North Korea runs over 100 restaurants in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Russia, which serve as a source of much-needed hard currency for the regime by sending home $100,000-300,000 a year.

The mood in Siem Reap is now desperate. Last month, a placard outside a South Korean restaurant criticizing North Korea’s attacks were torn down by seven people who appeared to be North Korean agents, in what expats there believe was another small-scale North Korean provocation. Tour agencies are also losing revenues after taking the restaurants off their itineraries. “We used to charge $30 per visit and took 30 percent of the profits, but not any more,” a tour guide said.

South Korean residents’ associations abroad rarely voluntarily boycott North Korean restaurants. The Okryugwan chain of North Korean restaurants in Beijing’s Wangjing district is still accessible to South Koreans. A South Korean Embassy official there said, “We asked residents to avoid the restaurant in November but did not force them.”

Meanwhile, a North Korean restaurant in Kathmandu, Nepal closed down in November after its North Korean manager defected to South Korea.

Read the full story below:
N.Korean Restaurants Abroad Feel the Pinch
Choson Ilbo


DPRK comments at the International Conference of Asian Political Parties in Phnom Penh

Monday, December 6th, 2010

According to the Daily NK:

In yet another hint as to Kim Jong Eun’s true status, Secretary of the International Department of the Chosun Workers’ Party Kim Young Il pointed to the beginning of the leadership of the successor at a recent conference in Cambodia.

Alongside politicians from 31 Asian states including South Korea, Kim was attending the 6th International Conference of Asian Political Parties in Phnom Penh on December 2nd as the head of the Chosun Workers’ Party delegation. There, according to Rodong Shinmun, Kim used his speech to explain, “At the Workers’ Party Delegates Conference, we appointed respected Comrade General Kim Jong Eun to Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Party.”

Kim also made several further mentions of the results of the Delegates’ Conference. Speaking of Kim Jong Il, he said “Our great leader, Comrade Kim Jong Il continues as General Secretary of the Chosun Workers’ Party…”, but by using the most honorary of terms like “respected”, he appeared also to emphasize the fact that the era of Kim Jong Eun has begun.

Chosun Central News Agency also reported the details of Kim’s speech on December 4th, emphasizing the words, “Every member of the Party and the people, with the great pride and self-respect of having a man of unsurpassed greatness at the highest level of the revolution, celebrated the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Chosun Workers’ Party splendidly last October; a great political festival to be spoken of as a special event in our people’s history.”

Given the context of the Korean used, it appears that the “man of unsurpassed greatness” refers to Kim Jong Eun.

Also, Kim reportedly added, “The nation’s economic power is being strengthened by the creation of Chosun-style iron, textiles and fertilizer, while we have seized control of the foundations of CNC technology; the most advanced CNC-equipped factories are being built constantly.”

Synthesizing these reports coming from Rodong Shinmun and Chosun Central News Agency and based on the fact that a major Party figure participating in an international conference should talk of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Eun in the same breath suggests the formalization of the Kim Jong Eun succession to power

Especially, Kim Young Il mentioning CNC, which the North Korean authorities are promoting as an amorphous “achievement” of the successor is seen in some quarters as tantamount to an announcement that Kim Jong Eun’s leadership has began. Recently, North Korea has allegedly been encouraging the expansion of CNC technology into most industrial fields.

Kim Yeon Su, a professor at National Defense University in Seoul, explained to The Daily NK, “This is to proclaim to the outside world that Kim Jong Eun has advanced to the successor’s position and that he has begun to lead.”

Professor Kim commented, “During the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises in the West Sea (November 30th~December 1st), Kim Jong Il went on an on-site inspection without Kim Jong Eun. This is a very exceptional incident and an expression of trust in Kim Jong Eun and confidence, suggesting that the Kim Jong Eun succession leadership system is ready.”

Meanwhile, also during his speech, Kim Young Il repeated existing arguments that the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island was based on the right to self-defense, and asserted that responsibility for it lies with South Korea.

Read the full story here:
“A Man of Unsurpassed Greatness”
Daily NK
Kim So Yeol


DPRK emigration data

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Josh points out this table from the UNHCR (originally published by RFA):


Click image for larger version.


Odd couple: The royal and the Red

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Asia Times
Bertil Lintner

North Korean Premier Kim Yong-il is scheduled to pay a four-day visit to Cambodia in early November, underscoring the curious close relationship between one of the world’s last communist dictatorships and one of Asia’s most ancient monarchies.

Kim Yong-il, who should not be confused with the North Korean supremo, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il or any of his relatives, will hold talks with Cambodia’s retired king Norodom Sihanouk, the Cambodian Foreign Ministry said in a statement posted on its website.

The North Korean premier will also hold “official talks” with his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen, and “pay courtesy calls” on Senate president Chea Sim, and the president of the National Assembly, Heng Samrin, according to the statement.

Cambodia has long served as a link between North Korea and Southeast Asia and beyond, so it is plausible to assume that trade and related issues will be on the agenda. For years the two countries ran a joint shipping company, and before the China-led six party talks, Cambodia had offered to mediate over Pyongyang’s contentious nuclear program.

Kim Yong-il’s visit to Cambodia is not the first by a North Korean dignitary in recent years. Kim Yong-nam, president of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, also visited the country in 2001 at the invitation of Sihanouk, who had then not yet abdicated in favor of his son, Norodom Sihamoni, the current serving monarch.

Kim Yong-nam now functions as de facto head of state, as Kim Jong-il’s father, “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung was elevated to the position of “eternal president” before his death in 1994, making North Korea not a monarchy, but rather the world’s only necrocracy.

As incongruous as it may seem, Cambodia is North Korea’s oldest ally in Southeast Asia. It all began when Sihanouk met Kim Il-sung in 1961 at a Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Belgrade and a personal friendship developed between the two leaders. When Sihanouk was ousted in a coup in 1970, Kim Il-sung not only offered him sanctuary in North Korea but also had a new home built for him about an hour’s drive north of Pyongyang.

A battalion of North Korean troops worked full-time on it for almost a year, and when it was finished, only specially selected guards were allowed anywhere near the 60-room palatial residence. Overlooking the scenic Chhang Sou On Lake and surrounded by mountains, the Korean-style building even had its own indoor movie theater. Like the Great Leader’s son, Kim Jong-il, Sihanouk loves movies.

Sihanouk has both directed and acted in his own romantic feature movies and a few more were made in North Korea, with Cambodian actors strutting their stuff against the backdrop of Korea’s snow-capped mountains.

French wines and gourmet food were flown in via China, and Sihanouk and his entourage were treated as royals would have been in any country that respects monarchy – as North Korea evidently does.

By contrast, North Korea has maintained less cordial relations with neighboring communist Vietnam, which still exerts behind-the-scenes pressure on Cambodia. Kim Yong-il will nonetheless also visit Hanoi during his diplomatic tour of Southeast Asia.

Throughout the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, North Korea refused to recognize the regime that Hanoi installed in Phnom Penh in January 1979 – and that despite immense pressure at the time put on Pyongyang from Moscow. During a meeting between Kim Il-sung and Sihanouk seven years later on April 10, 1986, in Pyongyang, the Great Leader reassured the then prince that North Korea would continue to regard him as Cambodia’s legitimate head of state.

When Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh in September 1993, after United Nations-led mediation to end Cambodia’s civil conflict, he arrived with 35 North Korean bodyguards, commanded by a general from Kim Il-sung’s presidential guards. They are still there, now guarding Sihanouk as well as the new king, Sihanomi, who is not as close to North Korea as his father, but has paid at least one visit to Pyongyang.

Sailing buddies
Sihanouk and the Cambodian royals showed their gratitude to the North Koreans when in the late 1990s they set up a privately-owned shipping registry, the Cambodia Shipping Corporation (CSC). The flag of convenience was used by the North Koreans, and it enjoyed royal protection as it was headed by Khek Vandy, the husband of Sihanouk’s eldest daughter, Boupha Devi.

CSC was also partly owned by a Phnom Penh-based North Korean diplomat and for a few years aggressively marketed itself as a cheap and efficient “flag of convenience” service for international shippers. A series of embarrassing maritime incidents, including the interception in June 2002 of a Cambodian-registered – though not North Korean owned – ship by the French navy, in a joint operation with US, Greek and Spanish authorities, of a massive haul of cocaine off the West African coast prompted Hun Sen’s government to cancel CSC’s concession and reportedly give it to a South Korean company, the Cosmos Group.

At the time, International Transport Federation general secretary David Cockroft told the Cambodia-based fortnightly newspaper the Phnom Penh Post that “they’ll need to be able to walk on water, because nothing short of a miracle will clean up the name of Cambodian shipping”. Indeed, little appeared to change, including North Korea’s use of Cambodia’s flag of convenience for controversial shipments.

In December 2002, a Cambodian-registered, North Korean-owned ship named So San was intercepted by Spanish marines, working on a US tip, in the Arabian Sea. It was found to be carrying 15 Scud-type missiles, 15 conventional warheads, 23 tanks of nitric acid rocket propellant and 85 drums of unidentified chemicals under a cargo of cement bags.

The destination of the weaponry was said to be Yemen, and following protests from both Yemen and North Korea – and intervention by the US, which apparently did not want to antagonize Yemen, a supposed ally in Washington’s “war on terror” – the ship was allowed to continue to Yemen. Later revelations indicated that the cargo was ultimately delivered to Libya, which caused considerable embarrassment in Washington.

Premier Kim Yong-il is likely to be quite familiar with the CSC, as he served as minister for land and marine transport from 1994 until the Supreme People’s Assembly appointed him to the premiership in April this year. But since the scandal-ridden CSC was reorganized five years ago, Cambodia’s economic importance to Pyongyang would appear to have waned, and North Korea’s only known activity in the country today is in the restaurant business, including eateries in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Yet as a diplomatic link to the wider region, Cambodia is still important to North Korea. In April 2003, the Cambodian government, at the urging of Sihanouk, had plans to send an envoy to Pyongyang in a bid to persuade the North Korean leadership to be more flexible about talks on its nuclear program, which at that time had stalled.

The mission never materialized, but North Korea no doubt remembers that its trusted ally Cambodia tried first to mediate – and that Phnom Penh in future could still serve as a gateway for improved contacts with the outside world. It remains to be seen what message Kim Yong-il will bring to Phnom Penh, but it is reasonable to assume that his visit will, despite the official announcements, be confined merely to “courtesy calls” and royal audiences.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.


Flags that hide the dirty truth

Friday, April 20th, 2007

Asia Times
Robert Neff

Many small countries in the world have resorted to unorthodox methods of obtaining much-needed currency. Although these methods may be legal, they often assist unscrupulous individuals and governments in conducting illegal activities. One popular method of obtaining cash is through flags of convenience (FOC). Countries, even land-locked ones, register other nations’ ships under their flag for a price.

It is a profitable industry that has no shortage of customers. Shipowners choose to register their ships under a foreign flag for a number of reasons, including tax advantages, cheap non-union crews, the ships’ conditions fail to meet the standards of the owner’s country, political reasons, or to facilitate illegal activities.

Because many of these ships often exchange flags and even their names, it is difficult to trace them, thus providing the anonymity they need to conduct their illegal operations. According to a statement by David Cockroft, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF): “Arms smuggling, the ability to conceal large sums of money, trafficking in goods and people and other illegal activities can also thrive in the unregulated havens which the flag of convenience system provides.”

Flying the Cambodian flag
One of the most notorious FOC countries was Cambodia. In 1994, Cambodia established its own ship registry – Cambodian Shipping Corporation (CSC), based in Singapore – and began immediately flagging ships of other nations.

Although its beginnings were modest (only 16 foreign ships registered with Cambodia during the first year) the CSC rapidly expanded. According to CSC, prior to its closing in 2002, the number of ships registered with the company was between 400 and 600, but according to US investigators and Cambodian officials the number was probably twice that.

CSC offered basically what many other FOC countries offered: registry for any ship, no questions asked, under its (Cambodia’s) flag for a low price. But, unlike other FOC countries, it offered to do the entire process online and within 24 hours. Despite Cambodia’s relative lag in Internet technology, its operation in Singapore enabled CSC to pioneer online registration.

As more and more foreign ships registered with CSC, it soon became apparent that a large number of the ships were involved in illegal activities. Cigarette smuggling operations were discovered near Crete and Albania; during the oil embargo of Iraq, oil was smuggled out of that country; human trafficking and prostitution operations were discovered near Japan and Crete, and, of course, drug trafficking.

All of these activities were cause for concern and drew condemnation, but there was one more criminal activity that concerned many nations even more: allegations that many of the ships were running arms. “Cambodia is one of the highest-risk flags. It is particularly murky and has got to be one of the first choices if you are running arms,” a spokesman for ITF said.

When asked about CSC’s alleged illegal operations, Ahamd Yahya of the Cambodian Ministry of Public Works and Transport was reported to have told Fairplay: “We don’t know or care who owns the ships or whether they’re doing ‘white’ or ‘black’ business … it is not our concern.” (Fairplay, October 12, 2000.)

Unsafe ships
In addition to illicit activities, the condition of the ships themselves was a concern. According to an article in the Guardian of London, by 2002 the company had about 450 registered ships, and out of this number 25 had suffered shipwrecks/strandings, 41 collisions, nine fires and 45 arrests. Nine  ś% ¬’n-registered ships were deemed severely hazardous and banned from entering European ports.

By the summer of 2002, many of the leading shipping organizations were calling for action to be taken against CSC. A spokesman for ITF condemned CSC and Lloyds shipping intelligence service wrote in an opinion piece: “The world should join us in demanding that Cambodia shut down this sleazy and pestilent offshore registration. How many more people have to die in incidents involving Cambodian-flagged vessels, or its ships detained for illegal activities, before something is actually done about it?”

The North Korean connection
American and South Korean interests in CSC were aroused when it was observed that a large number of North Korean ships, at least a dozen according to Michael Richardson, journalist and author of A Time Bomb for Global Trade, were registered with CSC and flying the Cambodian flag.

It is no secret that the Cambodian royal family had, and still maintains, a close relationship with the North Korean regime. King Norodom Sihamoni has often spoken of the Kim regime in a favorable manner. Kim Il-sung provided him with asylum during the turbulent years of Cambodia’s past and even built him an extensive 60-room palace outside Pyongyang. When the royal family returned to Cambodia it was accompanied by North Korean diplomats and bodyguards.

North Korea’s involvement in Cambodia’s flag of convenience operation was suspected after an investigation revealed that one of the primary partners in CSC was Lim In-yong, a senior North Korean diplomat who had served in Cambodia for many years. His role with CSC was described as being that of “a private citizen, [and] not as a representative of the North Korean government”. Whether his role was purely that of an individual or of a more sinister nature is unclear. But the United States and several other countries became increasingly suspicious of North Korea and the company’s motives.

Among several charges of illegal operations by North Korean ships, one was drug smuggling. When it was suggested in the media that Cambodian-registered North Korean ships may have been involved in drug smuggling, CSC denied any knowledge.

Incidents of drug smuggling involving ships from other nations flagged by the company were apparent. In 2002, the Greek-owned, but Cambodian-registered Winner was seized by French forces and discovered to be smuggling a large amount of cocaine. Interestingly enough, Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, gave his permission to the French government to board the ship – an indication that he did not support CSC. A short time later he revoked CSC’s authority to grant registry to foreign ships.

Perhaps the most infamous North Korean drug smuggling operation took place in 2003. The North Korean freighter Pong-su began its journey from North Korea under its own flag, but on arriving in Singapore changed its registration and reflagged under Tuvulu. It then proceeded to Australia where it was discovered trying to smuggle in a large amount of heroin, and was eventually seized after it tried to resist Australian authorities. Although this incident did not involve a Cambodian-flagged ship, it does give some credence to speculation that North Korea had smuggled drugs using CSC-flagged ships.

Weapons smuggling
While North Korea’s attempts to gain badly needed hard currency by smuggling drugs and tobacco were of some concern to the United States, more important were allegations that North Korea was smuggling and selling advanced weapons technology to other nations.

“Of most concern to the US and indeed to South Korea was the clear evidence that North Korean freighters flying the Cambodian flag or on the Cambodian register were moving ballistic missiles to clients in the Middle East and Africa,” noted journalist Richardson.

Perhaps the best-known of these Cambodian-registered North Korean ships was the Song Sang. In November 2002, a freighter believed to be carrying weapons departed a North Korean port and was tracked by American satellites and American naval ships. In December, as it made its way through the Indian Ocean, it was stopped by American and Spanish naval forces and inspected.

The United States justified its actions by claiming that it was flying no flag and thus was considered a pirate ship. According to Richard Boucher, the State Department’s spokesman, “At first we couldn’t verify the nationality of the ship because the ship’s name and the indications on the hull and the funnel were obscured. It was flying no flag.”

On investigation it was found that the ship was the So San, which claimed to have Cambodian registry. The So San’s manifest stated it was transporting cement to Yemen, but an examination revealed 15 Scud missiles with 15 conventional warheads, 23 tanks of nitric acid rocket propellant and 85 drums of unidentified chemicals all hidden beneath the bags of cement.

It is believed that the North Koreans tried to disguise the ship (Song Sang) by painting over the last two letters in the first name and the final letter in the second name (So San) to help prevent identification. The ship was eventually allowed to continue on its course after it was determined that it had broken no laws.

World criticism
Following the World Trade Center and other terrorist attacks, world opinion began to force the Cambodian government to reconsider its policy of allowing CSC to flag ships at will. The Cambodian government felt compelled to take action before one of the ships under its flag was found guilty of terrorist activity.

“We are victims because the company recklessly allows ships to use the Cambodian flag without proper inspection or control,” said Hor Namhong, the foreign minister, adding: “The company will be audited by the government.”

In July 2002, bowing to international criticism over concern for “Cambodia’s maritime safety record”, the Cambodian government revoked CSC’s authority to grant registrations, giving that authority to the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation. Ironically, it was this ministry that had just two years earlier declared disinterest into the alleged illegal activities of ships registered under its flag.

The Ministry of Public Works and Transportation was only in control of the registry for about six months before the Cambodian government granted the authority to register and flag ships to a new company, International Ship Registry of Cambodia, and its representatives in Busan, South Korea. According to e-mail correspondence from the company’s managing director, Charles Bach, to New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher, there are no longer any North Korean ships registered under the Cambodian flag.

But Marcus Hand, the Asian editor for Lloyd’s List, explained how difficult it is to know for certain who owns what ship because so many of them are owned by different companies registered throughout the world and only the North Koreans themselves know how many ships they own and what flag they fly.

Not only does North Korea purchase flags of convenience, it also sells them for nearly three times the normal asking price. According to ITF in 2006, out of 408 North Korean-flagged ships, only 187 of them were actually owned by North Korea; the rest were owned by other nations including Cambodia, Tonga, Comoros and Sao Tome and Principe – nations that are infamous for their own flags of convenience.

Prior to the United Nations Security Council’s resolution following North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006, some of the ships registered to North Korea may have done so to avoid inspection while they carried out illegal activities.

There is some question as to the number of ships that were owned by United States-based companies and registered and flagged under North Korea. According to the American Central Intelligence Agency’s Fact Book, there were three, but Bill Gertz, in an article published with The Washington Times (June 8, 2006), listed nine ships owned by foreign companies, such as Egypt and Syria, based in Delaware, United States. One of these ships was discovered in March 2006 engaged in smuggling migrants off the coast of Europe. Under sanctions that went into effect in May 2006, the companies were required to cancel their registrations with North Korea and seek new registrations with other countries.

The new threat
With the CSC no longer able to grant registrations and Cambodia and South Korea’s progressively warmer relationship, North Korea has been forced to look elsewhere to register its ships. According to The Straits Times, at least 40 nations in the world engage in flags of convenience; many of them willing to flag North Korean ships for a price. North Korea does business with several of them, but a surprising replacement for Cambodia has apparently been found – Mongolia, a land-locked nation.

However, following North Korea’s nuclear test in October of last year, Mongolia’s Ship Registry has urged ships under its flag to abide by the United Nations resolution against North Korea. It is unclear what effect this has had on North Korean ships registered with Mongolia.

In addition to the North Korean threat of nuclear weapons, it has been speculated that North Korea may have the ability to launch modified missiles from its submarines and cargo ships. North Korean-flagged ships would be more susceptible to being stopped and searched by United Nations forces, but ships under FOC might pass unnoticed through surveillance and pose a significant threat to the enemies of the Pyongyang government and to the reputations of the governments which flagged them.


Dining with the Dear Leader

Thursday, March 15th, 2007

Asia Times
Bertil Lintner

Video of the Restaurant on Youtube: 1, 2, 3

Its undoubtedly the liveliest and most popular Korean restaurant in town. Packed for lunch and dinner, the Pyongyang Restaurant is famous not only for its cold noodles and barbecue served with kim chi, but also for its talented wait staff, which when not serving are dancing to traditional Korean tunes played on violins and electric piano.

But the Pyongyang Restaurant in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is no ordinary Korean eatery. For one, it’s owned and run by the North Korean government, a capitalist enterprise that sends its profits directly to state coffers in Pyongyang. As with most other upper-crust restaurants in Phnom Penh, the meals have to be paid for in US dollars, not in riel, as the local currency is not convertible outside Cambodia.

When the international community imposed economic sanctions against North Korea after its nuclear tests last October, the Pyongyang authorities were able to continue to run a string of small-scale companies and businesses across the region that kept foreign-currency earnings flowing back home. Restaurants such as the Pyongyang Restaurant in Cambodia have in no small way helped keep the North Korean government afloat during tough diplomatic times.

And the establishments’ often booming business are proving North Koreans are no slouches as capitalists. Government-backed North Korean eateries are mushrooming across the region. For years there have been various North Korean-themed restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities. But the first was opened in Southeast Asia only in 2002 in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap, a popular tourist destination because of its proximity to the Angkor Wat temple complex.

It became an instant success – especially with the thousands of South Korean tourists who flock to see the ancient Angkor ruins every year – so successful, indeed, that Pyongyang decided to open a second venue in Phnom Penh in December 2003. Most of the clientele there are South Korean businessmen who work in Cambodia as well as a smattering of homesick South Korean tourists who drool over the authentic Korean eats. And while severe food shortages still plague North Korea itself, the fare in Phnom Penh is good and plentiful.

The choice of Cambodia for this North Korean capitalist experiment was, of course, no coincidence. Norodom Sihanouk, the country’s erstwhile strongman – first as king, then as prince, later as leader in exile and finally king again from September 1993 until his abdication in October 2004 – is a longtime close friend of North Korea.

He met the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in 1961 at a Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Belgrade. Four years later, Sihanouk was invited to visit Pyongyang, and a personal bond developed between the two leaders. When Sihanouk was ousted by his own military in a coup in March 1970, he was immediately offered sanctuary in North Korea.

Sihanouk’s government-in-exile, which included senior Khmer Rouge cadres, was in Beijing. But by 1974, Kim Il-sung had built a special private getaway expressly for Sihanouk about an hour’s drive north of Pyongyang. A battalion of North Korean troops worked full-time for nearly a year on the palatial residence and, when it was finally finished, only specially selected guards were allowed anywhere near Sihanouk’s 60-room home away from home. Overlooking scenic Chhang Sou On Lake and surrounded by mountains, the Korean-style building even included its own indoor movie theater. Like the “Great Leader”, Kim Il-sung, and his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, Sihanouk loved to watch movies.

Sihanouk returned to Cambodia after the government of Lon Nol was overthrown in April 1975 and Sihanouk’s communist allies, the Khmer Rouge, came to power. But when the Khmer Rouge put him under virtual house arrest in the royal palace in Phnom Penh, from where he narrowly managed to escape when the Vietnamese invaded in January 1979, Sihanouk was flown out on a Chinese plane and returned to his grand North Korean residence.

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. And in 1993, when Sihanouk was officially reinstalled as the king of Cambodia, he surrounded himself in the civil-war-torn country with people he knew he could trust – North Korean bodyguards.

So it is not surprising that hanging prominently on the wall at Phnom Penh’s Pyongyang Restaurant is a picture of Sihanouk, his wife Monique and their son King Norodom Sihamoni. According to locals familiar with the restaurant’s opening, the Cambodian royal family was among the first guests to dine there.

Business opportunities are still fairly limited in Cambodia, so last year the North Koreans opened an even bigger restaurant in neighboring Thailand. Its first day of operation was auspiciously chosen as August 15, coinciding with the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. The Bangkok branch of the Pyongyang Restaurant is tucked away down a side alley in the city’s gritty Pattanakarn suburb, far from areas Westerners usually frequent but very near the North Korean Embassy.

Inside, the walls are decorated with paintings of Kim Il-sung’s alleged birthplace, a peasant hut in Mangyongdae near Pyongyang. An all-women’s band, dressed in traditional Korean dresses known as hambok and in the North, chima jogoiri in the South and, of course, with little Kim Il-sung badges on their blouses, plays upbeat music on electric guitars, drums and electric piano.

It’s not exactly a tourist attraction, but it’s a colorful backdrop for businessmen and diplomats to cut deals or exchange the information that has in recent years helped to make Thailand into North Korea’s third-largest global trading partner after nearby China and South Korea. There are no signs of economic sanctions or deprivation here, but rather, perhaps, a tantalizing glimpse of a one day more prosperous and joyful North Korea.