When Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi met U.S. President Barack Obama during her recently concluded official visit to Washington, Obama’s decision to lift the remaining sanctions the United States imposed against the previous military regime’s human rights abuses dominated news coverage.
One week later, it is now evident that the two leaders also quietly discussed the state of Myanmar’s military ties with North Korea, a long-time point of bilateral contention that has hindered the complete normalization of diplomatic relations and will likely continue to limit strategic engagement until the United States is satisfied the secretive military-military relationship has been completely severed.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel told a Senate hearing on Wednesday that Obama emphasized to Suu Kyi the importance of rooting out any vestiges of cooperation with Pyongyang that may remain from the previous military regime, according to the Associated Press. Russel speculated there were “a few residual pockets” in the Myanmar military who may still have “some ongoing interactions” with North Korea, reports quoting his testimony said.
“But we think as far as the government is concerned and the military leadership is concerned that they are fully on board and this something they are working to prevent and eradicate,” Russel said. United Nations Security Council resolutions forbid trading arms with North Korea, provisions the previous military junta led by now retired Senior General Than Shwe habitually dodged to circumvent the country’s own international isolation and hedge its reliance on China.
In recent years, North Korea has exported artillery, truck-mounted multiple launch rocket systems and other military equipment to Myanmar in exchange for rice and other foodstuffs, according to news reports. Myanmar expert Bertil Lintner reported for Asia Times Online in 2006 that North Korean tunneling experts were spotted in Naypyidaw assisting the Myanmar military in building underground bunker complexes and other secretive facilities. The extent of North Korea’s involvement in Myanmar’s military modernization programs, arms supplies, and weapons development remains largely unknown.
Lintner has documented North Korean assistance to Myanmar’s missile program, including photographic evidence of then junta No. 3 General Thura Shwe Mann leading a Myanmar delegation to Pyongyang to visit defense facilities, military production lines, and a surface-to-surface missile factory in late November and early December 2008. On the occasion, Shwe Mann and North Korean military chief General Kim Kyok-sik signed a memorandum of understanding that formalized joint efforts in “building tunnels” and “modernizing weapons and military equipment.” In June 2011, the U.S. Navy intercepted and turned back a North Korean ship it suspected of delivering missile technology to Myanmar.
Myanmar has strained to assure the United States amid a diplomatic warming trend that such agreements are now null and void. Washington has mainly looked the other way while consolidating its broader strategic objective of counterbalancing China’s influence in the country. There have been individualized hits, though. In 2013, the Treasury Department placed Lieutenant General Thein Htay, head of the Directorate of Defense Industries, on a blacklist for involvement “in the illicit trade of North Korean arms.” In 2014, U.S. officials pressured Singaporean authorities to close bank accounts held by military-linked tycoon Tay Za on suspicions his firm made transactions with North Korean-linked companies.
Some analysts suspect the previous government’s punitive response to journalists with the local Unity Journal, who were sentenced to ten years in prison for reporting on a secretive military facility at Magwe Division, aimed to cover up active North Korean involvement at the underground complex. The reporters, who probably wrongfully claimed the facility was used to manufacture chemical weapons, also spotted what they identified as Chinese technicians in residence. Analysts believe the technicians were more likely North Korean. The reporters have since been pardoned and freed by Suu Kyi’s government.
Obama’s request will test Suu Kyi’s limited means to bring the autonomous military under her civilian control and oversight. Indeed, it is unclear if Suu Kyi and her elected government have been briefed about the military’s many secretive complexes scattered across the country. Led by Senior General Minh Aung Hlaing, the military still directly controls the country’s three main security related ministries, namely home affairs, defense, and border affairs. They are led respectively by Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe, a former leader of the Southwest Regional Command, Lieutenant General Sein Win, former head of the Air Defense Office, and Lieutenant General Ye Aung, a former military legal advocate.
Handpicked by Minh Aung Hlaing, the three officers are not known to have been directly involved with the previous junta’s dealings with North Korea. U.S. suspicions of “residual pockets” of Pyongyang loyalty will likely focus on military-appointed Vice President General Myint Swe, former hard-line minister of Yangon who was responsible for crushing the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” protests, and his military allies and associates. Myint Swe is loyal to and believed to still serve Than Shwe, who spearheaded the previous junta’s ties with North Korea and is known to remain politically influential from behind the scenes.
Obama’s lifting of sanctions will presumably remove Myint Swe and other military members and cronies involved in past dealings with Pyongyang from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, a designation that bars individuals from traveling to the United States. While the removal of sanctions will eliminate a major block to deeper U.S.-Myanmar strategic ties, known to be favored broadly by both sides, the move will not necessarily cut certain soldiers’ ties to North Korea or shutter the many secretive military complexes experts say North Korean technicians helped to build and maintain.
That cooperative spirit was still evident as recently as January 2015 when North Korea’s ambassador to Myanmar met Myint Swe to request his assistance in stopping distribution of Sony Pictures’ The Interview, a political film Pyongyang deemed an American plot to “hurt the dignity” of its supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. North Korea responded to the film by launching a cyber attack on Sony Pictures, prompting Obama to impose new sanctions on three North Korean organizations and ten officials. Myint Swe responded to North Korea’s request by confiscating copies of the film and arresting Yangon-based shopkeepers who peddled it.