PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Maximum pressure is technically still in effect against North Korea, despite the current frenzy of diplomacy.
But it was more like “maximum leisure” at the Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh on a recent night. The place was packed with more than 100 Chinese tourists washing down $38 plates of fish with $70 bottles of North Korean liquor. They rushed to present bouquets of flowers to, and take selfies with, the North Korean singers belting out Chinese ballads.
The North Korean state-run restaurant, which should have been shut down under sanctions, was reeling in the cash. American cash. When a guest asked to pay in Cambodian currency, the waitress said the restaurant accepted only U.S. dollars.
Across town, five North Korean soccer players were playing for Visakha, a club in Cambodia’s top soccer division , despite sanctions banning North Korean labor exports. They probably earn between $2,000 and $5,000 a month for the regime, according to one foreign player.
But on the field, no one cared where they were from. “In soccer, we just play,” said Hok Sochivoan, the Visakha coach. “We don’t talk about politics or our differences.”
Meanwhile, up at Siem Reap, close to the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, the Angkor Panorama Museum was open for business. It was built by the Mansudae Overseas Project Group, linked to the North Korean state’s main propaganda studio, for a reported $24 million in 2015.
The nonaligned countries of Southeast Asia, from Malaysia and Indonesia to Cambodia and Vietnam, have never been fans of a sanctions-based approach like the “maximum pressure” campaign that President Trump has been waging against North Korea.
That approach could change if the summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, scheduled to be held in Singapore on June 12, takes place. If a denuclearization deal is done, sanctions could be eased and money could start flowing to North Korea again.
But regardless of how that meeting turns out, relations between the countries of this region and North Korea will only improve.
“The Trump administration thinks that maximum pressure is still going on and will go on until the North Koreans actually give up something,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based think tank, and a regular interlocutor with North Korea.
“But the minute Trump said yes to the meeting, and even before that, when Kim and Moon were hugging each other, maximum pressure lost steam,” he said, referring to the inter-Korean summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27.
Singapore has been one of the region’s countries most inclined to implement multilateral sanctions. It has become much more stringent about shipping inspections; nevertheless, two Singaporean companies were this year revealed to have been shipping luxury goods, including liquor and watches, to North Korea.
Even Malaysia has moved on from last year’s diplomatic fracas when Kim’s half brother was murdered with a nerve agent in Kuala Lumpur’s airport, an attack widely blamed on the leader’s orders.
“It looks like Malaysia has gotten past the assassination,” said Carl Baker, also of the Pacific Forum, who has been in contact with Malaysian officials about having North Koreans attend regional security meetings. “They are clearly back in business again.”
That was in motion even before the return to office of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who, during a previous stint, used to like to say that sanctions were not the Malaysian way of doing things.
“A lot of leaders in the region think like that,” said Hoo Chiew-Ping, a North Korea expert at the National University of Malaysia.
“Southeast Asian leaders still see some value in maintaining their relationship with North Korea, even though the political relationship can sometimes be difficult,” she said. “They still want to retain their neutrality and their flexibility in terms of foreign policy.”
Throughout the sanctions years, Cambodia has remained a relatively welcoming environment for the pariah regime.
The Cambodian government said it was “committed” to abiding by all U.N. Security Council sanctions and has established a ministerial working group to implement them.
“This working group has taken some measures and is considering others in order to implement the UNSC’s resolutions,” said Chum Sounry, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.
But the countries’ close relationship dates back to the 1960s, when Cambodia’s Norodom Sihanouk, the former (and future) king, and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung became friends.
When Cambodia descended into civil war in the 1970s, Kim Il Sung built a 60-room palace in Pyongyang especially for Sihanouk, his home for much of the civil war.
In return, Sihanouk gave North Korea a royal residence on a prime piece of land overlooking the Independence Monument to serve as its embassy. It continues to occupy that large house, right next to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s official residence, to this day.
Relations are not as close as back then, said Vannarith Chheang, a Cambodian analyst. “Cambodia needs to be seen to be acting as a responsible country in following the U.N. resolutions,” he said.
That’s not the whole story, though.
A ship called the Jie Shun, headed from North Korea to Egypt and flying a Cambodian flag, was found to be carrying hidden 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades last year. A North Korean using a Cambodian passport was arrested in 2015 after trying to buy American night-vision goggles, including ones used by Special Operations forces, in Hawaii.
And one of the women charged with murdering Kim Jong Un’s half brother told a Malaysian court that she had traveled to the Cambodian capital a couple of weeks before that attack for a rehearsal at Phnom Penh airport.
As for the United Nations itself, Cambodia’s approach sometimes has an upside, offering an opportunity to engage with North Korea informally.
The U.N. political affairs department put on seminars for North Korean diplomats recently in the leafy environs of Siem Reap, in conjunction with the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, a nongovernmental organization based there.
Seven North Korean diplomats met with Americans to talk about trust-building and conflict resolution.
The timing, just a month before the Singapore summit, was coincidental.
“The purpose was to expose these folks to examples of conflict resolution and mediation and to give them examples of how this has worked in other recent regional disputes,” said one person with knowledge of the program, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive interactions with North Koreans.
Jeffrey Feltman, a former American diplomat who was head of the U.N. political department until earlier this year, gave a talk about how the United Nations approaches conflict. Feltman visited Pyongyang in December to urge the North Korean regime to start dialogue.
Keith Luse, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea and a former Asia adviser on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, talked about the role of Congress in American foreign policy. Former CIA analyst Robert Carlin, a frequent visitor to North Korea, also attended.
The North Koreans, all from the Foreign Ministry, included Ri Tong Il, a former envoy to the United Nations who is now head of the international organizations division in Pyongyang.
The workshop was part of the United Nations’ regular work, said spokesman José Luis Díaz. “The meeting was not expressly linked to the recent developments in or related to the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “If it helped in any way, then all the better.”
The approach in Cambodia, and among most of its neighbors, continues to lean toward maintaining good relations with North Korea, and neutrality in its disputes with the United States and its allies.
Burma’s transition to democracy — despite recent issues — is often held up in the region as an example of how Southeast Asian nations can work to elicit slow, positive change among neighbors.
Dino Patti Djalal, a former Indonesian ambassador to the United States who led a delegation of Southeast Asian experts to Pyongyang in April, summed up this sentiment, describing the exact opposite of “maximum pressure.”
“Don’t underestimate the value of engagement and persuasion,” he said. “Try to have a ‘give-give-give’ approach instead of ‘give and take.’ ”