Myanmar and North Korea were long the Asia-Pacific’s odd couple. Prior to Thein Sein’s era of reform in Myanmar, the two states shared a close diplomatic relationship, often finding common ground in their shared status as militarized pariah states in the greater Asia-Pacifc region. With Myanmar having taken concrete steps away from its isolated past and towards greater global integration, will their bilateral relationship survive? Will North Korea and Myanmar continue to cooperate?
In a piece written in late September 2013, over at NK News, Bertil Lintner recounts the beginning of Myanmar’s era of reform. He recalls Shwe Mann, speaker of the lower house of the Burmese parliament, and a possible successor to Thein Sein, visiting the DPRK in 2008. During that visit – which raised the ire of observers in the United States – he demonstrated a candid closeness to Kim Jong-Il that reflected a strategic motivation for their partnership beyond mere convenience.
Based on leaked details of the visit by “disgruntled Burmese government officials,” we know that the Shwe Mann and Kim Jong-Il signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU). According to The Wall Street Journal, this MOU formalized military cooperation between the two countries and included provisions that entailed North Korean supervision of the construction of Burmese military facilities, "including tunnels and caves in which missiles, aircraft and even naval ships could be hidden.” The WSJ continues that "Burma will also receive expert training for its special forces, air defense training, plus a language training program between personnel in the two armed forces.”
According to Lintner, the Burmese delegation had comprehensive and broad contact with the North Korea military during its visit, including "talks with Gen. Kim Su of the KPA Air Force, Vice Admiral Kim Khan Son of the KPA Navy, tank brigade commander Col. Kim Ton Yong, radar factory director Kang Man Su, chief engineer Li Tae Song at the Igla missile factory, Kim Su Gil, the director of the SCUD missile factory as well as officials of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and dignitaries at the Kim Il Sung Military University."
This was all back in 2009. The relationship was seen as a burgeoning threat to regional stability. Since then, Myanmar has undergone a radical era of transformation and talk of such a North Korea-Myanmar axis in Asia has largely subsided. In fact, to build confidence with the United States and South Korea, Myanmar has pledged that it will entirely cut off relations with North Korea, including weapons shipments and any sort of military commerce.
That pledge ran into some road bumps when the U.S. Department of the Treasury blacklisted Burmese Lieutenant General Thein Htay for engaging in the “illicit trade of North Korean arms to Burma.” The Treasury Department noted in its press release that the action specifically “does not target the Government of Burma.” The incident did not seem to set back thawing U.S.-Burmese ties – at least not publicly. U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, in his meeting with ASEAN Defense Ministers, reiterated the importance of Myanmar severing its ties with North Korea.
Lintner expresses skepticism about the possibility of a complete estrangement occurring between North Korea and Myanmar, citing their long history of cooperation. The current air of ambiguity between the two states is likely conditioned by the United States’ use of tranched sanctions-relief in incentivizing reforms in Myanmar – should Myanmar defect from U.S. demands, particularly on its security relationship with North Korea, the economic effects could prove deleterious. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military establishment) isn’t entirely without leverage given its influence over Myanmar’s position in the strategic game of tug-of-war between the United States and China (and some would say India).
The North Korean side of the equation is predictably opaque; no one has a clear window into what Pyongyang’s intentions are for Myanmar in the coming years. The answers required to make any predictions about the prospects for continued clandestine North Korea-Myanmar cooperation will have to come from Myanmar.
In a piece in the Japan Times, Curtis S. Chin, former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, paraphrases a set of ten questions proffered by Keith Luse, a former senior U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member. These questions (affixed below), if answered, will shed light on this relationship.
Apart from continued concerns over human rights violations, the North Korean question is a major point of ambiguity for Western and Asian policymakers in approaching Myanmar. There is no reason that the two states can’t part ways; they are by no means all-weather partners. Prior to 2000, Myanmar and North Korea were largely estranged over a failed North Korean assassination attempt on South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan during a state visit to Rangoon. Myanmar, taken aback at North Korea’s audacity, suspended bilateral relations. As Thein Sein nears the end of his political career in Myanmar, he would do well to cement his largely positive legacy by formally ending his country’s relationship with North Korea and disclosing the extent of former activity between the two prior to his reforms – thereby answering one of the last gripping questions about Myanmar’s intentions, and opening the path for its complete reintegration with Asia.
Ankit Panda is Associate Editor of The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter @nktpnd.
Ambassador Curtis S. Chin’s paraphrase of Keith Luse’s questions on North Korea and Myanmar, from the Japan Times:
• What is the complete list of the multiple military and other projects where North Korean technicians and officials have been present or working inside Burma during the last 13 years?
• Which of the projects or facilities, where North Koreans have been or are present, have or had a role in the development of Burma’s missile program, nuclear program or both?
• What has been the role of North Korean trading companies in the development of Burma’s nuclear and missile programs? These same companies have reportedly assisted Syria with the development of its nuclear program.
• To what degree has China’s complicity with the major expansion of the North Korea-Burma military relationship been raised with the Chinese by the United States, the European Union and others in the international community?
• What has been or is China’s direct role, officially and unofficially in the development of Burma’s nuclear and missile programs?
• What is the total list of countries that have, knowingly or unknowingly, assisted Burma with development of its nuclear or missile programs?
• To what degree has North Korea’s aiding and expanding Burma’s military capabilities been raised with North Korea by the U.S., the EU and others in the international community?
• What is the full inventory of military equipment and weapons, whether submarines or defense radar systems, provided or planned on being provided by North Korea to Burma?
• Has the presence of multiple North Korean trading companies within Burma established another front and route for North Korea’s global proliferation capabilities?
• And, critically, amid growing engagement with much of the world, why are Burma’s leaders waffling on terminating, and making transparent and clear such termination of, the military relationship with North Korea?