Burma: One Korea for Another

The visit to Burma this week by Lee Myung-bak is another symbolic step for the Thein Sein government.

Burma has lately become a favourite destination for world leaders and policymakers, with the likes of Hillary Clinton, David Cameron and Ban Ki-moon all making appearances in order to get a feel for what Burmese political reform looks like up close.

But no visit has encapsulated the great political distance that Burma has travelled over the past year quite like that of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who met with both President Thein Sein and National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this week.

It was, after all, only five years ago that the Burmese regime was restoring diplomatic ties with the other Korea. At the time, that decision appeared to symbolize the deepening of Burma’s isolation from international society, and the hopelessness of the country’s political trajectory. There was no common ground between Naypyidaw and Pyongyang, or at least nothing ideological: there was only their mutual status as Asia’s outcasts. Burma’s paranoid leaders wanted North Korean weapons systems and, it’s rumoured, engineers to help fortify their newly built capital city. North Korea just wanted Burma’s money.

This week, Thein Sein drew a line under his country’s flirtation with Korea’s dark side by admitting to his South Korean counterpart that Burma had indeed, as was widely assumed, procured weaponry from Pyongyang. He then promised not to do it again.

So just as in 2007 – the year the Burmese military crushed the country’s Saffron Revolution – North Korea became Burma’s natural ally, in 2012 South Korea assumed that role instead. This was Burma switching sides.

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Thein Sein also assured Lee that his country had no nuclear dealings with Pyongyang. That’s an extremely important claim, and one that should now be backed up by full disclosure of the extent of Burma’s nuclear activities. Any nasty revelations on this issue that aren’t made now of Naypyidaw’s own volition could have a damaging impact on the country’s rehabilitation at a later date.

From Lee’s perspective, returning to the scene of one of the worst outrages ever perpetrated by Pyongyang against the South Korean people – namely the assassination of 17 government ministers and officials in Burma in 1983 – was itself a significant expression of trust in the new-look Burmese government. Seoul has been highly active in Southeast Asia recently, extending alliances with Indonesia and the Philippines in particular. Perhaps Burma will soon be added to the list of South Korea’s strategic partners.

As for Thein Sein, he has obviously come to embrace a new reality. Unlike his predecessor, Than Shwe, he appears to understand that Burma can achieve a lot more with internationally acceptable economic assistance than it can with internationally unacceptable military assistance. For a country still in a democratic infancy, that’s a hopeful sign.