The North Korea Connection: Cambodia’s Secret Refugee Pipeline
I have mostly included this painting because it is awesome.
WikiLeaks has come to Cambodia, and local media sources spent the latter part of July combing through hundreds of pages of not-so-secret information. Cables ranged from detailed accounts of the Siem Reap sex trade to cutting comments on certain dignitaries tone-of-voice to very serious concerns about the ongoing Thai-Cambodian border controversy.
While looking through the cables (Thanks, Mr Assange!), I noticed an interesting new dimension in the long-standing and poorly understood relationship between North Korea and Cambodia.
The WikiLeaks cables revealed that in November 2006, a North Korean man, arrested and held in Cambodia’s rather remote Mondolkiri province, was not immediately deported to Vietnam—as was reported at the time.
The refugee was instead assisted in his search for asylum by the Cambodian and South Korean governments, with the full knowledge and assent of the US government. This formal government assistance has until now, been kept a secret.
Cambodian police sources in 2006 said that the man- who was named to media as a Mr Ly Hai Long, although this name does not sound even vaguely Korean – was immediately and unceremoniously deported to Vietnam on November 21, the day he was detained.
But US Embassy cables from November 22 tell a different story, noting the South Korean ambassador had contacted US officials to tell them that his government was working with Cambodia to “quietly move him (Mr Hai Long) to South Korea.”
The English-language Cambodia Daily newspaper reported on Nov 23 that Mondolkiri Governor Lay Sokha insisted the North Korean was still in police custody, while Mondolkiri police said they knew nothing whatsoever about the man or the circumstances of his detention.
A second, more detailed US cable—also from November 22—told a different tale. According to the second cable, US NGO workers based in Mondolkiri had met the North Korean at a restaurant there, where he asked them to help him find asylum in the USA.
The Americans immediately contacted US Embassy via human rights NGO Licadho, and gave the-then US Politics and Economics Chief all the information they had on Mr Hai Long, a meeting held at Licadho’s offices.
The North Korean’s detention aligned somewhat inconveniently with the 2006 visit of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who during that visit asked Cambodia for a bit of assistance in negotiating with the always-difficult North.
According to the cables, Mondolkiri provincial officials were instructed to keep the man in custody until Mr Moo-hyun’s visit was over, then send him along to Phnom Penh.
Contradictions in the North Korean’s case continued, as now-deceased (and notorious) Police Commissioner Hok Lundy insisted on the 27th that the man had been deported, while a program coordinator for human rights NGO Adhoc continued to say the difficult-to-track man had been sent to Phnom Penh.
The US cables end with a brief analysis, noting that the man’s “liberal” treatment in Cambodia, in tandem with the Korean President’s visit, was nothing if not heartening from the American perspective: “The ROK Ambassador’s assurances that they are quietly engaged with the RGC on this case are consistent with the good working relationship that the South Korean government has established with the Cambodian government concerning North Korean refugees,” the cable finishes.
Both North and South Korean embassies declined to comment publicly on the matter when I called them a couple of weeks ago, as did the US Embassy. I couldn’t find out what ultimately happened to the so-called Mr Ly Hai Long, but I have a hunch he’s been resettled – hopefully happily – somewhere in South Korea. If only all North Korean escapees could be so lucky, instead of, say, being shot while fording a freezing river to live a life of vaguely-less poverty in China or being sent off to work camps upon being captured en route out of the country.
But the trail doesn’t end there when it comes to North Korean refugees in Cambodia, as a series of 2009 cables indicate.
A July 10 cable noted two Embassy of the Republic of Korea counselors were “preoccupied with conveying their desire that the ROK (government of Korea) pipeline for North Korea refugees not be publicly revealed, and remain separate from any US refugee processing pipeline,” a sentiment the US government, according to the cable, shared.
Embassy cables from 2010 that six North Koreans had, in recent years, approached the Phnom Penh US Embassy in search of resettlement, discussing in detail the imminent departure of two North Koreans for the US on April 16.
The cables note with evident pleasure Hok Lundy’s “cooperation in…processing exist permits for the two individuals,” as well as Cambodian officials “discreet” handling of the North Korean’s exit from the country.
The cable also refers to a previous, covert departure of North Korean refugees where “no one at the airport noticed the North Korean’s comings and goings.” Considering the none-too impressive dimensions of Phnom Penh’s airport, that’s no mean feat.
What’s most interesting about Cambodia’s efforts to aid North Korean refugees? Cambodia and North Korea have historically had a pretty good relationship – a relationship that, as the cables indicate, may be cooling off.
Former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk enjoyed a long-standing and comfortable relationship with Pyongyang, and the now-deceased Dear Leader Kim il Sung. The former king was given a palce on a North Korean lake, where he spent much of the Lon Nol era of Cambodia’s war-years in exile (and where he returned after the 1979 Vietnamese invasion). Sihanouk was also known to use burly North Korean guards for his personal security outfit.
As of 2011, a few North Korean state-run restaurants operate in Phnom Penh and in the tourist hub of Siem Reap. North Korea just sent a trade delegation to Cambodia—delegations from the DPRK to Cambodia are usually sent a few times a year.
But Cambodia seems to be shifting its formerly (sorta) friendly approach to the DPRK. In a 2006 embassy cable, Sun Suon, director of the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs International Organizations Department, said that Pyongyang’s dabbling in nuclear weapons was a “grave miscalculation” that could have “dire” consequences.
When asked about his nation’s relationship with the DPRK, he “suggested it was no longer as unique as it once was,” what with the death of Kim Il Sung and the 2004 retirement of the massively influential Sihanouk.
Another 2006 cable notes that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is “sensitive” to the North Korean refugees plight, due to his own experience of “having to seek shelter outside his own country during the Khmer Rouge period.”
In the same cable, Hun Sen’s advisor, Om Yentiang, in a rather worrisome statement, registered “some concern over the PM’s safety due to the proximity of the North Korean Embassy (which is next door) to the PM’s residence — should USG-RGC cooperation on North Korean refugees become public knowledge.” Paranoia, or warranted caution when it comes to interactions with the widely proven to be completely nutso North Koreans?
So is Cambodia delicately edging away from its formerly friendly relationship with North Korea? The newly released cables seem to indicate that Cambodia is, probably wisely, backing away—quietly—from close ties with the (unsurprisingly) profoundly unpopular North Koreans.
But, at least on the outside, Cambodia and North Korea appear to be conducting business as usual. A North Korean trade delegation, sent at the end of July, enjoyed a reasonably productive visit to Cambodia. The two nations revamped seven points originally agreed to in 1993, and agreed to mutual assistance on (among other things) forestry projects and aquaculture, while North Korea expressed interest in importing Cambodian rice. Well, they do need it.
Although the Embassy cables regarding North Korean refugees cut out as of 2009, it’s likely that refugees who manage to make it through will continue to be quietly processed in Cambodia and sent on to South Korea or the USA. Does North Korea now know about Cambodia’s refugee “pipeline” and does it particularly care? The next few months should yield the answer, and I’ll be watching.
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