The people be damned: Recalling the odd friendship between ‘Snooky’ Sihanouk and Kim Il-Sung

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By Donald Kirk,

They formed one of the oddest, blood-stained duos in Asian history. Cambodia’s king and prince and then king again, Norodom Sihanouk, bonded with North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung for reasons that had to do with their mutual hatred of the United States. Never did the adage, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, seem more relevant.

The relationship between the two came up for speculation again after Sihanouk died this week in Beijing at the age of 89. He was there for treatment for a number of ailments, but China was not his first choice for a home in exile.

Kim Il-Sung, left, and Norodom Sihanouk.

He really preferred an enormous villa that Kim Il-Sung had provided him after he was ousted from power in Phnom Penh in a U.S.-backed coup in March 1970. Sihanouk, having decided that communist rule was the way of the future, was on his way to Moscow when he was overthrown. Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin told him the bad news.

Sihanouk knew whom he could count on when it came to finding aid and comfort. He had met Kim Il-Sung in 1965 when Sukarno, the Indonesian leader, “deliberately” put them in adjoining suites during a celebration in Jakarta of the tenth anniversary of Afro-Asian “solidarity” talks, according to Tony Paul, an Australian journalist who covered Cambodia in that turbulent period. Thus Sukarno, writes Paul, whom I knew when he was a senior writer for Reader’s Digest in Asia, “was responsible for one of the prince’s most enduring, though peculiar, friendships.”

To surface appearances, Sihanouk and Kim Il-Sung would have seemed totally different. Sihanouk, known to us in those days as Snooky, loved to entertain visiting journalists. I saw him half a dozen times from 1967 to 1991.

In the early days he was often seen and heard chatting at ceremonies, haranguing some of us, praising others, expounding on policies that he said had made Cambodia “an oasis of peace” between South Vietnam to the east, Laos to the northeast and Thailand to the west.

Unlike Sihanouk, Kim Il-Sung did not show up much in public and welcomed foreign journalists only rarely while ruling his fiefdom as an absolute dictatorship primed for a second Korean War.

Sihanouk did not appear nearly so harsh but broke off relations with the U.S. in 1963 — a gesture that must have pleased Kim Il-Sung — and did nothing to stop North Vietnam from shipping supplies to South Vietnam via the “Ho Chi Minh” trail system through Cambodia’s eastern jungles. He was either in Pyongyang or on the way there when President Nixon ordered U.S. troops into Cambodia on May 1, 1970, to wipe out North Vietnamese bases.

Sihanouk sided totally with the Khmer Rouge, the extremist rebels whom he had once tried to suppress. China provided arms for the Khmer Rouge as well as North Korea — all the more reason for Kim Il-Sung to host Sihanouk.

After the Khmer Rouge drove out the U.S.-backed regime in April 1975, Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh as “head of state” — a title that showed his solidarity with the new order even though he had no power while Pol Pot ran the show. For more than three years he and wife Monique were sequestered in a royal palace while the Khmer Rouge slaughtered as many as two million Cambodians.

Sihanouk had to have been well aware of the Khmer Rouge capacity for cruelty even if he did not explicitly sanction the killing in which a number of his own children and grandchildren also died.

As Tony Paul observes, “Sihanouk’s decision to lend his name to these extremist revolutionaries was a disastrous decision for Cambodia — and for Sihanouk’s historical record.”

The Chinese airlifted him and Monique out of Phnom Penh after Vietnamese troops, now under Hanoi’s control, invaded Cambodia in December 1978, driving the Khmer Rouge into the jungle. Sihanouk’s close ties with Kim Il-Sung were about to enter a new phase. Once more, he was welcomed to Pyongyang.

“How anyone could have imagined that the ebullient prince would have bonded with East Asia’s least blithe spirit still puzzles observers, but the chemistry worked,” writes Paul. “Until Marshal Kim’s death in 1992, Sihanouk referred constantly to ‘My best friend, the Great Leader.’ ”

The Communist leader is said to have given the dispossessed monarch a 70-room villa — maybe really a compound with several buildings including a projection room.

Like Kim Il-Sung’s son and heir, Kim Jong-Il, Sihanouk was a movie buff who had produced, directed, written and acted in home-grown films. Paul writes that Sihanouk liked to winter in Pyongyang.

“Sihanouk gave me one reason for his gratitude for Kim’s making available a bolt hole in Korea’s smog-free countryside,” says Paul. “ ‘Winter in Beijing is not funny!’ ”

Nor did the bond end after Sihanouk in 1993 again returned to Cambodia, recovering the title of king. Kim Il-Sung died the next year, but Kim Jong-Il was happy to have Sihanouk back in 2004 after he’d relinquished the throne to his eldest son.

Presumably one topic Sihanouk and his North Korean host did not discuss was their cruelty toward their own people. But Snooky, having sold his soul to the Khmer Rouge, might have appreciated the bloodletting that Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il decreed as their cure for North Korea’s many illnesses.