Analysts have long suspected North Korea of supplying Burma with weapons and technology. Has the Dear Leader become a role model for Than Shwe as well?
Burma and North Korea, two of the world’s most oppressive, isolated and secretive nations, were previously not on speaking terms. But over the last two decades, Burma’s junta chief, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, and North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, have formed a disconcerting partnership of convenience that, due to recent events, has garnered increased attention from the international community.
Analysts, including Burma military expert Andrew Selth, say that for years Burma and North Korea have used a barter system whereby Burma exchanges primary products for North Korean military technologies. And in May, the seven-member UN panel monitoring the implementation of sanctions against North Korea confirmed in a report that Pyongyang is involved in banned nuclear and ballistic activities in Burma, Iran and Syria with the aid of front companies around the world.
Despite the fact that the junta’s nuclear program appears to be in its primitive stages, if the allegations are true, then Burma is the first Southeast Asian nation with nuclear armament ambitions. And because of North Korea’s own nuclear capabilities, its clear desire to export nuclear and ballistic missile technology and its renewed relationship with the Burmese regime, experts are scrambling to discern exactly what the ties between North Korea and Burma really consist of.
According to some experts, the main influence North Korea has on Burma’s nuclear ambitions is that of a role model—by setting an example of what is possible once nuclear capability is achieved.
“Unfortunately, the lessons they [the junta] seem to be studying most closely these days are those being taught by North Korea. Kim Jong Il seems to be their role model for regime preservation and international relations, as he has successfully used the threat of nuclear weapons to wring a measure of respect from the international community,” said Kelley Currie in The Wall Street Journal.
The author of the DVB report, Robert Kelley, who is a nuclear scientist and former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said that Burma’s generals, over time, will “seek more ways to hang onto power as their wealth grows ever larger and the dissatisfaction of the population threatens to oust them.”
Kelley said Burma’s leaders hope to develop a defensive military power that would “make foreign intervention very painful for an aggressor,” and which “signals its neighbors to leave them alone.”
“The model for this is North Korea. North Korea is too poor to threaten anyone except its immediate neighbors, but its possession of nuclear weapons inhibits any outside intervention in its repressive regime,” he said.
A high-ranking Burmese military intelligence officer, Aung Lynn Htut, who defected in 2005 when he was serving as an attaché at the Burmese embassy in Washington, said in the DVB report that the country’s top general has long wanted to emulate the example of Pyongyang.
“In 1992, when Snr Gen Than Shwe came to power, he thought that if we followed the North Korean example, we would not need to take account of America, or even care about China. In other words, when they have nuclear energy and weapons, others will respect us. They won’t dare to bully or occupy Myanmar [Burma]. For example, they won’t treat it like they treated Iraq.