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North Korea and Kim Jong-il: The Myanmar Element

by Joshua Kurlantzick
December 20, 2011

North Korea's Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun (4th R) visits the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar July 29, 2010.

North Korea's Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun (4th R) visits the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar July 29, 2010 (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters).

Over the past five years, as North Korea’s few friends and allies in the world dwindled, and the international community cracked down on its proliferation activities, Myanmar has apparently become much more important to Pyongyang strategically. From virtually no relationship at all ten years ago, now the two pariah nations have regular high-level military-military dialogues, including some of the senior-most members of the former Myanmar military regime. As The Irrawaddy reported several years ago:

In November 2008, a Burmese military delegation led by Gen Shwe Mann flew secretly to North Korea and met the army-in-chief, Gen Kim Kyok-sik. They agreed terms of cooperation on several military initiatives, including radar and jamming units, air defense systems, and a computer-controlled command center. The delegation also visited North Korean SCUD missile factories which are located in the tunnels. The two countries signed an agreement that North Korea will help in the construction of military facilities for missiles, aircraft and war ships.

That’s far from all. There is considerable suspicion in Western and Asian intelligence communities that North Korea has been helping Myanmar develop some elements of a nuclear and/or ballistic missile program, and that Myanmar has also served as a staging point for all manner of illegal North Korean money-making activities, including American currency fraud, smuggling of other goods, and possibly proliferation to other, third nations. Shortly before Hillary Clinton’s trip to Myanmar three weeks ago, Senator Richard Lugar revealed that his office has had information about Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions, with the help of North Korea, for five years now. North Korean technicians have been reportedly helping Myanmar build tunnels and other underground facilities whose purpose is unknown, and ships carrying weapons from North Korea have been stopped in international waters on their way to Myanmar. Some Burmese defectors say that North Korean military technicians have been closely involved in nascent efforts to develop a Burmese nuclear weapons program.

But with the emerging U.S.-Myanmar rapprochement, there is a real opportunity here for the United States to gain insight into North Korea’s proliferation activities, criminal networks, and other foreign endeavors, through discussions with Myanmar military and civilian officials. Other than Chinese officials, or a high-level North Korean defector (which has not happened in years), these Myanmar military men may be the most knowledgeable sources about the North available. There is evidence that Myanmar might be willing to give up information about its North Korean ally and North Korean aid inside Myanmar: As The Irrawaddy reported, Myanmar President Thein Sein “told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Burma follows the resolution of the UN Security Council regarding nuclear non-proliferation when the pair met in Naypyidaw on Dec. 1.”

Other Myanmar officials say that some military and civilian leaders recognize that, if Myanmar is going to have real rapprochement with the international community, it will need to give up its ties to North Korea, or at least make them far more transparent. And some older Burmese officials remember that Pyongyang is not exactly a stable ally: In an attempt to kill South Korea’s then-president, Chun do-Hwan, North Korean terrorists in 1983 exploded a large bomb in downtown Rangoon,  murdering much of the South Korean cabinet, and 21 people in total (though not Chun).

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