[REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK]The North loses another friendPHNOM PENH ― North Korea’s Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun was perhaps wise in deciding to skip the meeting here last week of top diplomats from ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations.
When he sent a roving ambassador in his stead, he was no doubt anticipating an uncomfortable lecture or two from the 22 other countries represented, and he also probably knew what his reception would be like in the host country, which as it opens up to the international community has been reversing its previous chumminess with Pyeongyang and turning more to Seoul.
South Koreans long resident here say it has become a better place for them to live and do business. North Koreans, on the other hand, are losing the clout that they once had.
“You’d be having a chat in a restaurant and North Koreans at another table would scream at you to shut up,” said a businessman from Seoul who has lived in Phnom Penh for seven years. “This used to be their backyard.”
The decline of North Korean influence here is reflected in the shrinking size of an elite North Korean group handling the security of King Norodom Sihanouk. In his long and tumultuous 80 years, the king found a friend in the former North Korean supreme leader, Kim Il Sung, and took refuge in a Pyeongyang villa in the 1970s when he was overthrown in a rightist coup.
Sihanouk has been back on the throne since 1993, but with the pragmatic prime minister, Hun Sen, increasingly friendly to Seoul, the ailing king and his North Korean connection have faded quickly in recent years. The South Korean connection is nowhere more apparent than in the visibility of the prime minister’s security force, which is said to have been trained by South Korea’s secret service. Intimidating young Khmer men whose green jackets spill over their pants to conceal a firearm at the belt are seen at establishments operated or frequented by South Koreans, offering unofficial protection.
North Korean diplomats here last week must have sensed the reality of their country’s plight. From Ambassador Ho Jong down, they seemed tense, quiet and distant from the other participants in the meeting, as if wary of another lecture about what a stupid idea it is for them to be running a nuclear development program. They appeared to require at least a five-second pause to answer questions as inoffensive as, “How is Ambassador Ho feeling this morning?”
The South Korean businessman said any North Koreans he might encounter in a restaurant today would be unlikely to interrupt your conversation, no matter how loud. And Seoul diplomats, once overprotective of South Koreans, are more relaxed today. One envoy said work has become a lot more comfortable and relaxing. It sometimes involves comforting confused North Korean diplomats and even taking the ambassador home after he has had too much to drink.
by Kim Young-sae
The writer is diplomatic correspondent of the JoongAng Daily.