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S. Korea, Cambodia forge strategic partnership

Scandal-ridden first lady attends official lunch, resumes official duties after 153-day absence

May 16, 2024 - 15:35 By Son Ji-hyoung
President Yoon Suk Yeol (left) speaks during a summit with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet (second from right) at the presidential office in Seoul, Thursday. (Pool photo by Yonhap)

South Korea and Cambodia officially elevated their relationship to a strategic partnership on Thursday at a summit of President Yoon Suk Yeol and his Cambodian counterpart Hun Manet in Seoul.

The announcement came "with full confidence in the future of the bilateral partnership" as the two countries acknowledged that their diplomatic ties have grown stronger over the past few decades, according to a joint statement released Thursday.

"Since the reestablishment of relations in 1997, the bilateral ties have greatly improved. Trade volume rose 20-fold, people-to-people exchanges grew 150-fold, and Korea rose to the country with the second-largest investment in Cambodia. Moreover, some 10,000 multicultural families have bound the two countries together," Yoon said in the opening remarks at the summit.

"In response to the diplomatic breakthrough, our establishment of a strategic partnership holds great significance," Yoon said.

During the talks, leaders of the two countries sought to strengthen economic development cooperation in Cambodia and envisioned Korea's chances of greater involvement in Cambodia's infrastructure construction projects.

The two countries explored the possibility of setting up a Special Economic Zone in Cambodia exclusively for South Korean corporations to further facilitate and attract investment projects from South Korea to Cambodia. Kim Tae-hyo, first deputy chief of the presidential National Security Office, said in a briefing that Cambodian leader Manet has extended the offer to South Korea.

The two countries also agreed to double the amount of South Korea's concessional loan contribution to Cambodia through South Korea's state-backed loan facility Economic Development Cooperation Fund.

The new arrangement made Cambodia the largest partner of Korea's EDCF initiative, with the total EDCF commitment to Cambodia rising to $3 billion from 2022 to 2030. Korea's commitment to Cambodia stood at $1.5 billion from 2022 to 2026.

These will eventually "provide South Korean companies with a bigger playing field," said Kim of the National Security Office.

President Yoon Suk Yeol (right) shakes hands with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet at the presidential office in Seoul, Thursday. (Pool photo by Yonhap)

Yoon and Manet also discussed ways to boost bilateral trade and defense cooperation, according to Yoon's office.

The two countries were seeking an opportunity to hold joint naval drills, with the South Korean Navy planning to conduct its first port call in Cambodia this year, Kim said.

The two countries' customs enforcement agencies also pledged to cooperate in busting multinational drug trafficking, human trafficking, cybercrimes and scams.

On security, the Cambodian side welcomed the Yoon administration's signature "Audacious Initiative," which aims to achieve a denuclearized, peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula for Indo-Pacific regional prosperity.

Kim, during his briefing, acknowledged Cambodia's effort to abide by the United Nations sanctions. He said Cambodia has repatriated hundreds of North Korean workers, caught vessels involved in breaching UN sanctions on North Korea, and shut down all businesses run by North Korea.

"Cambodia has earnestly acted in accordance with the UN sanctions on North Korea," Kim said.

Kim added that Korea will execute a new demining project in Cambodia, beginning this year.

These were among the announcements, enshrined in six documents signed after Yoon and Manet held talks at the presidential office in Seoul on Thursday.

Manet arrived in South Korea Wednesday for a four-day official visit.

Manet was the first Cambodian head of state to visit South Korea and meet a South Korean leader in a decade. Manet was inaugurated in August 2023 as the Cambodian Prime Minister.

South Korean first lady Kim Keon Hee (second from left) discusses Cambodian traditional costumes with Cambodian first lady Pich Chanmony (third from left), on the sidelines of the summit between President Yoon Suk Yeol and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet at the presidential office in Seoul on Thursday. (Presidential Office)

Meanwhile, the presidential office in Seoul said South Korean first lady Kim Keon Hee attended the official lunch at the presidential office, along with Yoon, Manet and Cambodian first lady Pich Chanmony.

It was first lady Kim's first undertaking of official duties in 153 days. She was last seen in public in December 2023 when she returned to Seoul after wrapping up Yoon's visit to the Netherlands.

Kim is embroiled in multiple scandals including one related to the alleged violation of an antigraft law, in which she was caught on a hidden camera receiving an expensive Dior bag as a gift last year.

Since then, Kim remained low-key and did not expose herself to the public even in official events, such as Independence Day in March, the general election in April and Buddha's Birthday celebration on Wednesday.

During the summit, Manet brought up the case of Aok Rotha, a Cambodian boy who received heart surgery in Seoul after encountering first lady Kim at Hebron Medical Center in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia in November 2022, describing the case as "an important example."