Cambodia on Tuesday rolled out the red carpet for North Korea’s No 2 leader, greeting Kim Yong Nam with hundreds of students, an honor guard and a special airport appearance by King Norodom Sihanouk.
As president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim is the highest-ranking North Korean to visit Cambodia, and his trip comes a year after the visit of North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun.
Kim’s visit punctuates the strong ties between communist North Korea and Cambodia, which are especially felt by King Sihanouk, who was close to the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, father of the country’s current president, Kim Jong Il. The King has a home in the North’s capital, Pyongyang, where he spent some of his time in exile, and his North Korean bodyguards were a gift from Kim Il Sung. Large portraits of Kim Il Sung and the King, along with smaller pictures carried by well-wishers, could be seen throughout the city.
Hundreds of students carrying tiny North Korean and Cambodian flags lined Russian and Norodom boulevards to greet Kim, a welcome given only to high-ranking officials of Cambodia’s closest allies. Chinese President Jiang Zemin was given a similar greeting in November.
Women dressed in traditional Khmer clothing, Royal Palace guards in shimmering costumes, two bands, scout troops, ambassadors and government officials all attended the posh ceremony at Pochentong Airport.
Kim arrived on time at 11 am on an Air Koryo plane bearing the North Korean flag on the tail. He was greeted by the King, and the two stood at attention while the North Korean and Cambodian anthems were played.
“His visit is meant to strengthen the ties of both countries,” Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said.
“We support national unity. Tension has eased between North and South Korea,” he said.
Kim then called on government officials, including National Assembly Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Senate President Chea Sim, co-Defense Minister Prince Sisowath Sirirath, Minister of Cabinet Sok An and Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara.
Phnom Penh diplomats, including South Korean Ambassador Won Hyung Lee, also shook hands with Kim. “It’s a gesture from the South to the North,” said Lee, who identified himself and said “Welcome” to Kim.
“Thank you,” Kim replied in Korean.
British Ambassador Steve Bridges, at the airport to greet Kim, said the visit signified Cambodia’s growing relationship with the international community.
“As Cambodia opens up, more heads of state are visiting, and the same can be said for North Korea,” said Bridges, who lived in South Korea for five years as a diplomat.
After his arrival, Kim traveled to the Royal Palace where he paid a courtesy call on the King. Banners welcoming Kim and miniature North Korean flags were strung across city streets.
Kim also met with Chea Sim, Prince Ranariddh and Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was not at the airport, before attending an banquet at the Royal Palace Tuesday evening.
Today, Kim is scheduled to visit the National Museum, the Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace and attend a performance of the Royal Ballet. On Thursday, he is scheduled to visit the temples of Angkor. He departs Friday.
(Additional reporting by Brittani Sonnenberg)