Pariah Partners in Arms
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Pariah Partners in Arms

By Andrew Selth MARCH, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.3


Bilateral relations between Burma and North Korea were severed in 1983, after Pyongyang sent agents to Rangoon to conduct a terrorist attack against a visiting South Korean presidential delegation. Diplomatic ties have still not been restored. Over the past few years, however, these two economically stricken but highly militarized pariah states seem to have found some common ground.

Depending on how it develops, this relationship could extend beyond mutual support to have wider strategic implications. Reports that the Rangoon regime has sought to acquire strategic weapon systems like submarines and ballistic missiles from Pyongyang have aroused concern in regional capitals and in Washington. There have even been suggestions that North Korea is secretly helping Burma to build a nuclear reactor, raising the spectre of a future atomic weapons program that could be used by Rangoon as a bargaining chip against the United States.

Conventional Arms

Burma’s leaders have not forgotten the 1983 attack but, faced with continuing arms embargoes by their traditional suppliers, and the perceived need to acquire even more weapons for the armed forces, or Tatmadaw, Rangoon cannot be too discriminating. North Korea offers an attractive alternative source of arms and military equipment. Pyongyang feels no qualms about defying the international community and selling arms to a regime like the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC. The items in its inventory are comparatively cheap, and North Korean arms tend to be based on tried and tested Russian and Chinese designs. As such, they are of a similar pattern to weapon systems already in the Tatmadaw’s order of battle. They are often at the same level of technical sophistication, making them easier to maintain and operate. It is also possible that for strategic reasons the ruling junta wishes to diversify the source of its arms, even at the risk of upsetting its close ally, China.

Given the closed nature of the Rangoon and Pyongyang governments, and their shared obsession with secrecy about any issues connected with national security, details of such arms sales are difficult to obtain. However, it would appear that in 1990 Burma purchased 20 million rounds of 7.62mm AK-47 rifle ammunition from North Korea. This ammunition was probably destined for the United Wa State Army, which had just signed a ceasefire agreement with the Rangoon regime. Also, in mid-1998, the junta is believed to have purchased about sixteen 130mm M-46 field guns from North Korea. The frequent visits of North Korean freighters to Rangoon in recent years, and the secrecy surrounding their cargoes, have led to speculation that other deliveries of arms and military equipment have occurred. These suspicions have been strengthened by reports of North Korean technical experts visiting Burmese military bases.

In July 2003 it was reported that about 20 North Korean technicians had been seen at the Tatmadaw’s main naval facility at Monkey Point in Rangoon. They were believed to be helping the Burma Navy to equip some of its vessels with surface-to-surface missiles, or SSM. Burma currently has six Houxin guided missile patrol boats, acquired from China in the 1990s. Each vessel is armed with four C-801 anti-ship cruise missiles. It has been speculated that similar SSMs would be mounted on the three new corvettes that have been built at Rangoon’s Sinmalaik shipyard, and recently commissioned. It is more likely, however, that the North Koreans were installing SSMs of some kind on the navy’s four new Myanmar class coastal patrol boats. It has long been suspected that they would be fitted with missiles to give them a greater offensive capability.

The first of these arms deals appears to have been arranged through Thai, Singaporean or possibly even Chinese intermediaries. The delivery of the 130mm field guns, however, followed an unofficial visit to North Korea by the Burma Army’s Director of Procurement. A Burmese government delegation made another secret trip to North Korea in late 2000. This was followed in turn by the visit to Rangoon in June 2001 of a high-ranking North Korean delegation, led by Vice Foreign Minister Pak Gil-yon. This visit, which preceded the arrival of North Korean technical experts at the Monkey Point naval facility, was reportedly to discuss cooperation in the defense industrial field. The changing nature of these contacts clearly reflects the rapidly improving ties between Rangoon and Pyongyang.

The arrangements made for the sales of both the AK-47 ammunition and the 130mm field guns appears to have included a strong element of barter trade. This is also likely to be the case with any SSM sale.

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