Prime Minister Hun Sen has condemned the March 26 sinking of a South Korean Navy ship in a letter to South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak.
Escalating already tense relations on the peninsula, both South Korea and the US have linked the sinking to a torpedo found at the scene that allegedly matches designs that North Korea had been trying to sell on the global arms market.
“I feel deeply surprised and concerned that the investigation, jointly conducted by South Korean and international experts, has concluded with irrefutable proof that the South Korean Navy vessel Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo explosion on March 26 killing 46 of its crew members,” Mr Hun Sen wrote in his letter to President Lee, dated Saturday.
“I wish to affirm to your Excellency that the Royal Government of Cambodia strongly condemns this act of provocation which has led to instability and insecurity, thus undermining peace in the Korean Peninsula,” the prime minister added, without making specific reference to North Korea.
“On behalf of the Royal Government and people of Cambodia, I would like to take this opportunity to once again express my profound condolences and sympathies to your Excellency, the government and people of the Republic of Korea, particularly the bereaved families of this terrible and needless loss of lives,” he wrote.
Su Yong, first secretary at the North Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh, declined to comment on the letter yesterday.
“The letter didn’t mention who [was behind the attack], so I don’t bother [commenting],” Mr Su said before hanging up.
Kim Sang-hoon, a counselor at the South Korean Embassy, referred questions to fellow counselor Huh Jung-ae, for whom contact details were not available.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong insisted yesterday that the prime minister’s letter would not hurt Cambodia’s relations with North Korea, which have a long and storied history.
“It won’t affect diplomatic ties; he condemned [the perpetrators] in general,” Mr Kuong said.
According to Bangkok-based journalist and author Bertil Lintner, Cambodia is North Korea’s oldest ally in Southeast Asia, a relationship that first began when then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk met Kim Il Sung at a Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Belgrade in 1961.
The royal family’s ties grew deeper when Prince Sihanouk was ousted by Lon Nol’s coup in 1970 and Kim offered the prince sanctuary in Pyongyang and also had a palatial home built for him overlooking the Chhang Sou On Lake.
Throughout the 1980s, Prince Sihanouk and an entourage of Cambodians in exile spent time at the residence in North Korea and when the Prince returned to Cambodia following the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements he returned with a retinue of 35 tough, North Korean bodyguards bequeathed by Kim.
The North Korea bodyguards still protect the retired King. More recently, North Korean Prime Minister Kim Yong-il paid a state visit to Cambodia in 2007.
South Korea has in recent years become one of Cambodia’s largest investors. Mr Hun Sen cemented the blooming trade relationship in 2008 by naming President Lee an economic adviser to the government. During a state visit to Phnom Penh last October, President Lee signed off on a $200 million loan to Cambodia. In December, the Finance Ministry announced that South Korea’s World City would construct a $6 million home for Cambodia’s long-awaited stock exchange and design a 15-hectare financial district for the capital. South Koreans make up the second largest number of foreign visitors to Cambodia after Vietnamese visitors. Chinese visitors are currently in third place.
Just over a week after the sinking of the Cheonan, Cambodia reportedly had its own maritime run-in with a South Korean ship.
According to news reports, South Korean authorities on April 3 seized a Cambodian-flagged freighter that had a deadly collision with a fishing boat searching for survivors of the torpedo attack. The report added that the bodies of two of the fishing boat’s nine crewmembers had been retrieved and that the Cambodian-registered freighter and its crew were taken into custody. No news of the reported incident has surfaced since. Repeated requests for comment from the South Korean Embassy have gone unanswered.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)