The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Burma-North Korea Ties Pose a New Headache for US
By AUNG ZAW Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The US has been a leading critic of the Burmese regime's appalling human rights violations and repression of the country's opposition and ethnic minorities. Now, however, a shift in Washington's Burma policy can be discerned as the Obama administration seeks to engage with the regime.

The engagement policy is not only about promoting democracy and human rights in the military-ruled country. The most pressing issue is the warming relationship between Burma and North Korea.

During his first visit to Burma last year, US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told the junta leaders of Washington's concern about the increasing military ties between Burma and North Korea.  It isn't clear whether Burma gave assurances to the US.

The US wants to see the Burmese regime sever its military ties with North Korea, but it won't have an easy task convincing the reclusive generals.

The Washington Post, quoting US officials, reported this week that the Obama administration had launched an aggressive campaign to convince Burma's junta to stop buying North Korean military technology.

A senior US State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the newspaper: “Our most decisive interactions have been around North Korea. We've been very clear to Burma. We'll see over time if it's been heard.”

Burma’s neighbors, as well as the US, will need to carefully monitor the strengthening ties between Naypyidaw and Pyongyang.

Last month, alarm bells rang when Burma's state-run media reported that several high-ranking Burmese military officials, including Lt-Gen Tin Aye, ranked No 5 in the Burmese armed forces hierarchy, participated in a Rangoon ceremony to mark the 68th birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

The New Light of Myanmar ran a front-page story with a photograph of Tin Aye and North Korean Ambassador Kim Sok Chol holding hands together at a welcoming reception.

An interesting development was a full-page birthday tribute to Kim Jong Il, published in the Burmese language “Popular Journal” and praising Kim as a true patriotic leader. The article hailed Kim's creation of nuclear and guided missile programs, saying he had stood up against the West and sacrificed his life for the future of North Korea.
There is no doubt that the regime’s notorious censorship board approved the article after receiving the green light from top leaders in Naypyidaw.
Burma and North Korea have developed a military relationship since the two countries restored diplomatic ties in 2007.

Analysts believe that clandestine military ties between the two countries may have been reestablished as early as 1999, when Burmese officials paid a low-profile visit to the North Korea capital.

Last year, The Irrawaddy exposed a leaked report of a clandestine visit by Gen Shwe Mann to military facilities and missile factories in North Korea.

As chief of staff of the army, navy and air force, and the coordinator of Special Operations, Shwe Mann led a 17-member, high-level delegation on a seven-day visit to Pyongyang. Among the sites they visited were secret tunnel complexes built into the sides of mountains to store and shield jet aircraft, missiles, tanks and, possibly, nuclear and chemical weapons.

Accompanied by air defense chief Lt-Gen Myint Hlaing and other senior army leaders from heavy industries, the delegation was clearly on a mission to cement stronger military ties with the hermit state.

During the visit, Shwe Mann and his North Korean counterpart, Gen Kim Kyok-sik, signed a memorandum of understanding, officially formalizing military cooperation between Burma and North Korea.

In July 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern over military links between North Korea and Burma.
“We know that there are also growing concerns about military co-operation between North Korea and Burma, which we take very seriously,” Clinton told journalists in Bangkok during a visit to Southeast Asia. “It would be destabilizing for the region. It would pose a direct threat to Burma's neighbors.”

Military analysts say the North Korean regime has provided Burma with weapons, military technology transfers and expertise in underground tunneling used for concealing secret military installations. Since 2002, they say, dozens of North Korean technicians have assisted the Burmese armed forces.

Under the terms of the memorandum, North Korea would build or supervise the construction of special Burmese military facilities, including tunnels and caves in which missiles, aircraft and even naval ships could be hidden.
Burma would also receive expert training for its special forces, as well as air and defense training.

The Burmese officials who alerted the outside world to these developments were hunted down, brought to trial and sentenced to death.

Some army officials still at large insisted that the Burmese regime plans to acquire nuclear weapons. A former army official who still has connections within the army told The Irrawaddy recently that top army leaders believe that the possession of nuclear weapons will gain Burma more bargaining chips with the West and neighboring governments..

The official said, “They (Burmese leaders) look up to North Korea and Pakistan as role models and they are not out of touch and they always study the regional and international landscape with keen interest.”

Burma's nuclear program includes the acquisition of a 10-megawatt light water nuclear reactor from Russia. Its secret location is in Magwe, central Burma.

In 2006, nuclear physics departments were established in the universities of Rangoon and Mandalay, with enrollment controlled by the government.

In 2007, Russia’s ambassador to Burma, Dr Mikhail M. Mgeladze, confirmed that about 2,000 Burmese students had been admitted to 11 academic institutions in Russia under a bilateral agreement, and about 500 had returned to Burma with bachelor, master’s or doctorate degrees.

In May 2007, Russia and Burma signed a new agreement in Moscow “on the establishment of a nuclear research center in Myanmar.”

The signatories were Burma’s science and technology minister U Thaung and the head of Russia’s Nuclear Power Agency (Rosatom), Sergey Kiriyenko.

Russia is not on the US nuclear watch list.
“If it was just the Russian reactor, under full international energy supervision, then the likelihood of them being able to do something with it in terms of a bomb would be zero,” according to Prof Desmond Ball, who specializes in security issues in the region. “It's the North Korean element that adds danger to it.”

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at
[email protected].

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