The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
A Friend in Need

Signs of strengthening diplomatic and military ties between Burma and North Korea are creating unease in many world capitals—not least, in Washington, where the Obama administration says it’s watching developments with “growing concern.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after attending a ministerial meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) in Thailand in late July that military cooperation between Burma and North Korea “would be destabilizing for the region, it would pose a direct threat to Burma’s neighbors.”

An undated picture  released by North Korea's official Korean central News agency on June 14, 2009, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (c) inspecting the command of 7th  Infantry Division of  the  Korean  People's  army  at  an undisclosed location in North Korea.  (Photo: AFP)
Significantly, she made the statement while in one of Burma’s most watchful neighbors, Thailand. Talk of regional destabilization is bound to have echoed not only in the corridors of power in Bangkok, but also in Naypyidaw, where the generals need no reminder of the importance the US places on maintaining stability in areas where its interests have to be protected.

Burma and North Korea are both located in such areas—two troublesome countries with histories rooted in warfare and repression.

Burma won its independence from the British in January 1948, and in the same year North Korean Communists founded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). When civil war broke out in the early 1950s in newly independent Burma, North Koreans were waging war against the southerners and their US allies in the Korean Peninsula.

But Burma was no North Korea. Ne Win, who introduced the “Burmese way to socialism,” had not envisaged forging a close alliance with North Korea. Nevertheless, diplomatic relations were established between the two countries in 1974.

Since then, Burma’s Beijing-based ambassador has also been responsible for Burmese diplomatic representation in North Korea. When a former Burmese ambassador, Chan Tun, made a courtesy call on North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, he was received in a cave but was amazed by the opulence of this unconventional official setting, which he compared to a palace.

Ne Win visited Pyongyang in 1975, accompanied by his daughter, Khin Sandar Win. It is believed that China was behind the North Korean invitation.

Diplomatic relations between Burma and North Korea were abruptly broken in 1983 when North Korean agents carried out a bomb attack on a visiting South Korean delegation led by then President Chun Doo Hwan.

Chun Doo Hwan narrowly escaped death or injury, but four South Korean cabinet ministers and 13 other officials were killed by the blast. North Korean diplomats in Burma were told to leave the country within 24 hours.

North Korea has never apologized for the incident, although its government has since made several attempts to restore diplomatic ties. Ne Win, however, rejected each olive branch.

Ne Win is now history. Isolated and hamstrung by Western sanctions and arms embargos, and under pressure to upgrade its armed forces, the Burmese regime has every reason now to nurture ties with Asia’s new nuclear power, North Korea. In April 2007, the two countries restored their long-ruptured diplomatic ties.

Since then, North Korea has sold Burma 20 million rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition, and between 12 and 16 130mm M-46 field guns. North Korean experts are now helping the Burmese build tunnel installations that are thought to have military application.

In 2008, Burmese government representatives made at least five visits to North Korea. Foreign Minister Nyan Win visited Pyongyang in October 2008 and among other senior officials welcomed to Pyongyang were Rangoon Mayor Brig-Gen Aung Thein Linn, Lt-Gen Tin Aye, chief of the armed forces office of the defense industries, and Gen Myint Hlaing, chief of the air defense department.

Burma, for its part, welcomed North Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Young Il in November 2008, and the two governments signed a free visa agreement for diplomats and official passport holders.

North Korea is regarded by some observers as not only a strategic partner for the Burmese junta but also a role model for the isolated and xenophobic Burmese generals.

According to North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, Brig-Gen Aung Thein Lin and Maj-Gen Htay Oo have both spoken in warm terms about the importance of the North Korean regime’s “Songun” or “Military First” policy.

The policy assured the Korean People’s Army the position of “supreme repository of power” after Kim Jong Il took over the leadership in 1994.

“One of the feats performed by Kim Jong Il in leading the party and revolution to a shining victory, shouldering upon himself the destiny of the country and nation is that he has strengthened and developed the WPK [Workers Party of Korea] into a guiding force of the Songun revolution,” said an enthusiastic Htay Oo at a Burma function celebrating the 45th anniversary of the Korean leader’s admission to the WPK.

Admiration for the North Korean model was also expressed by Aung Thein Lin, who said in November 2008 that he was deeply impressed by the way North Korean people were “dynamically advancing” under the Communist policy of Songun

In one comment that summed up the realistic outside view of the “dynamic advances” of these two isolated citadels of oppression, Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus, said: “It is sad that in both countries a grasping, clueless leadership is maximizing the misery index and pushing too many of their people into the abyss of poverty.”

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |