A Forbidden Friendship: Myanmar’s Secret Ties to Kim Jong Un’s Regime

Photo: Comune Parma/CC BY-SA 2.0
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Myanmar needs to disclose her collaboration with North Korea to avoid US sanctions.

By Oliver Ward, Edited by Isabel Yeo

Despite Myanmar’s persistent denial of current relations with North Korea, US envoys remain concerned that backdoor channels of cooperation exist between the two. In July 2017, US Ambassador Joseph Yun met with Aung San Suu Kyi and Naypyidaw’s Military Chief. His agenda was for Myanmar to remain compliant with UN sanctions against Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Myanmar and North Korea had close military ties

Under its previous military government, Burma was a prominent buyer of weapons and military equipment from the North Korean government. As a result, both countries enjoyed a close diplomatic relationship of mutual benefit.

The relationship between the two nations under military rule also included an exchange of labour. In 2009, a leaked American diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Myanmar to Washington outlined the presence of 300 North Korean technicians in Myanmar. They were allegedly helping Myanmar construct a nuclear reactor. Independent Burmese media outlets also reported that Myanmar had embarked on a program to develop nuclear weapons with the assistance of Pyongyang.

These secretive relations occurred in conjunction with more overt diplomatic cooperation. In 2008, Myanmar’s General Shwe Mann embarked on an official visit to North Korea. During the visit, he inspected missile sites and air defence radars before signing a bilateral security agreement with Pyongyang.

There is evidence to suggest that these ties have continued

Myanmar’s government insisted that the relationship ended in 2011 when the country transferred from a military to a civilian government. “There’s no such relations between military to military. Definitely not,” said Kyaw Zeya, the Permanent Secretary of Myanmar’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.

But with the military still holding power over defense policy, cooperation apparently continued.

An anonymous source within the Myanmar military described a recent visit by North Korean Defence Service personnel. The North Koreans ran a training program for the Burmese military and taught the Burmese how to use computerised fire control systems on battle ships. The program allegedly ran at Pyin Oo Lwin, home to the Defence Services Academy.

Myanmar’s military bought from and sold weapons to North Korea

In late 2011, Myanmar purchased battlefield radio equipment from Glocom, a North Korean front company with links to the North Koran intelligence agency. Myanmar also allegedly bought weapons from North Korea via the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (Komid), a front company for North Korea to import and export arms. Although the specific details of the collaboration between the Burmese military and Komid are unknown, the existence of high-level cooperation looks sure. In 2015, the US also imposed sanctions on Kim Sok-chol, the North Korean Ambassador to Myanmar for his role in brokering sales for Komid.

Myanmar has not just been buying weapons either. In 2012, the US accused the Directorate of Defence Industries (DDI), the state-owned weapons manufacturer in Myanmar, of selling arms to the North Korean regime. The company owns more than 24 arms factories, and the US added it to the list of 30 enterprises who received sanctions earlier this year.

With such an extensive list of evidence, the US will be demanding some answers

Despite Burmese denials, it is hard to believe that Myanmar’s military and the North Korean regime have no existing relations.

Myanmar needs to come clean and offer an explanation as to why North Korean technicians have been working in Burma for the last ten years and what technologies they have developed. Myanmar should also be upfront about the weapons sales between the two countries. It would also be useful to find out what other countries have aided the development of Burmese arms. The US could use this to establish if any other countries have been involved in underground collaboration with North Korea and assisted them with their nuclear development.

If Myanmar remains deliberately opaque about their connections with North Korea, they can expect the US to reapply sanctions. The US State Department has said that “if a situation becomes so egregious and serious for our national security interest, there are a variety of tools, including sanctions.”

The US and their allies could use the threat of sanctions to gain valuable information

Myanmar would not welcome a return to the economic sanctions of old, but failure to offer full transparency over the relationship and cooperation would likely push the US into returning Myanmar to the list of pariah states.

Myanmar would be more affected by the sanctions than North Korea. Looking at the distribution of North Korea’s imports, Myanmar has not been a significant trading partner. There have been other bigger players that have been ignoring the sanctions. China has been one. Without the Chinese government taking the sanctions seriously and enforcing them with enthusiasm, the North Korean state would still have an economic lifeline to survival.

(Source: Observatory of Economic Complexity)

US and Myanmar should start having open diplomatic discourse instead. They could reach an agreement where Myanmar offered all the information they had regarding the North Korean military’s capabilities in exchange for continued free trade. This deal could lead to further information on other states bypassing the sanctions, or offering nuclear technology assistance to the North Korean nuclear program.

As North Korean missile capabilities keep increasing, the US will become more determined to enforce sanctions, particularly on Chinese and Russian companies bypassing the existing trade restrictions. Myanmar’s economy is not as robust as China’s or Russia’s, and sanctions would adversely hurt Myanmar’s growth. It will be unsurprising if the US uses the threat of sanctions to get the information they want out of Myanmar.

Now is the time for Myanmar to show their hand and speak candidly about their relationship with Kim Jong Un’s regime. It might be the only way to avoid throwing the Myanmar economy back to its dark days under military rule and could provide valuable missing pieces to the North Korean puzzle.