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Myanmar-North Korea link

by Curtis S. Chin

With investments by Japan and Japanese companies — as well as their American and European counterparts — on the rise in the once-pariah state of Burma (also known as Myanmar), it is worth asking how much the country has really changed since the days of military rule. One issue, in particular, that should be of great interest to Japan and the rest of East Asia is the extent of Burma’s military relations with North Korea.

Even as progress continues on a range of political and economic fronts, the latest news reports from Burma make clear that significant human rights concerns remain across many of the states that make up this troubled union.

Recent military activities in Burma’s southern Kachin State have displaced thousands of villagers, and flare-ups in sectarian violence just weeks ago in Rakhine State have left numerous people dead not far from one of the nation’s top beach destinations.

These and other unresolved ethnic and religious tensions, which existed even under the days of British-era colonial rule, are once again resurfacing with a vengeance.

Understandably, many of the civil society organizations and nations who once pushed for sanctions on Burma continue to press for concrete reforms on a number of human rights issues. Less attention though has been given by policymakers to the issue of Burma’s past and present military relationship with North Korea.

That should change. With an unpredictable North Korean regime continuing to be a wildcard in the continued relatively peaceful development of Asia, the international community should seek greater transparency on and disclosure of Burma’s nuclear, biological, chemical and missile programs with that country.

In a recent speech before the Heritage Foundation here in Washington, Keith Luse, a respected former senior U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member, called for greater transparency in Burma’s dealings with North Korea.

He also, in expressing his personal opinion, posed a number of questions that are well worth repeating and that Asia’s policymakers should also seek answers to. Here is a top 10 list:

• 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?

In recent years, North Korean technicians and workers have entered Burma via Chinese air flights originating in China, according to Luse, and a considerable amount of military equipment and weaponry supplied to Burma by North Korea has entered Burma via overland transit through China.

• What has been or is China’s direct role, officially and unofficially in the development of Burma’s nuclear and missile programs?

North Korean state trading companies’ Chinese partners may well play a role in assisting Burmese nuclear and missile programs. In contrast, Luse notes, Russia has been transparent in reporting much of its role in the development of Burma’s nuclear program.

• What is the total list of countries that have, knowingly or unknowingly, assisted Burma with development of its nuclear or missile programs?

It will be interesting to see if dual use technology from Japanese companies has put Japan unwittingly onto this list.

• 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?

Perhaps, Luse states, Burma’s leaders now believe that “time is on their side” — that the international community, whether the U.S., the EU or perhaps even Japan, will swallow concerns and put aside any questions about the North Korea military connection given their eagerness to offset China’s business and development influence within Burma.

Recent history has shown that the U.S. and indeed the United Nations have failed in stopping North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and missile capabilities.

Let us hope that nascent political and economic reforms, as well as near-term opportunities, in Burma do not likewise blind the international community of the need to bring accountability and transparency to any North Korean military dealings in and with Burma.

Understandably, businesses, development bankers and aid agencies, whether Japanese, European or American, are eager to join what may well be a mad rush into Burma in their efforts to gain competitive advantage.

Yet, any such effort that requires looking the other way on human rights violations or sweeping under the carpet any North Korea-Burma dealings is neither in the interest of the international community or the Burmese people in the long-term.

With Burma having taken over the rotating leadership of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the time is now to ask — and have answered — some critical questions of Burma’s leaders as the world increasingly engages with that nation.

Let’s begin with Luse’s list of 10.

Curtis S. Chin served as U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (2007-2010). He is currently managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.

  • Derek Tonkin

    There has never ever been any serious evidence of North Korean nuclear engagement with Myanmar, but it is always difficult to prove that something does not exist. The military relationship has raised many questions in the past, but no country in the UN has sought to challenge Myanmar for being in breach of very clear UN Security Council Resolutions forbidding military engagement of any kind with North Korea. It cannot possibly be in the Chinese or Russian interest to assist the North Korean engagement in Myanmar, especially in the nuclear field. It is however all very odd that the US has singled out one Myanmar military commander to be placed on the SDN (embargoed) list because of alleged military cooperation – in a situation where that commander must have been acting with the consent of his military superiors. Generally, though, the excitement about Myanmar-North Korean military relations seems more contrived than honestly held.