The United States has in recent years sought to end Burma’s weapons trade with North Korea by strengthening its own relations with the Southeast Asian country.
This may have been wishful thinking, given that ties between the two pariah states goes back decades, and have survived challenges as deadly as the Rangoon bombing of October 1983.
A DECADES-OLD RELATIONSHIP
Both North and South Korea maintained unofficial “consulates” in the former Burmese capital of Rangoon in the 1950s. Following the 1962 military takeover in Burma, formal relations were established with both Koreas, but Rangoon’s relations with Pyongyang tended to be warmer than with Seoul. In 1966, the official News Agency Burma (NAB) signed an agreement with Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, which was permitted to employ a Burmese citizen as its correspondent in Rangoon.
In 1977, military strongman Gen. Ne Win paid an official visit to Pyongyang, and North Korea became the first communist-ruled country to establish fraternal links with the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), at the time Burma’s only legally permitted political party. Subsequently, in 1980, a BSPP delegation attended the 6th Congress of the Korean Workers Party in Pyongyang.
Under an economic agreement negotiated during Gen. Ne Win’s 1977 visit, North Korea helped Burma build and operate a tin smelter, a glass-manufacturing plant, a hydroelectric plant and a synthetic textiles plant (perhaps the famous North Korean fabric vindalon?). North Korea also provided Myanmar with industrial products, including machinery, tools, cement and chemicals. In return, Burma exported cotton, rubber, wood, rice and minerals to North Korea. But there is no evidence of arms transfers during this time.
Burma’s eagerness to maintain cordial relations with North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s may have been prompted by Pyongyang’s then-policy of supporting revolutionary movements all over the world. Burma was at that time facing a serious communist insurgency – and it did not want to have North Korea as an enemy. Only China, never North Korea, supplied the dangerous insurgent Communist Party of Burma with weapons and other support.
Then came the Rangoon bombing.
The incident, an effort by North Korean agents to assassinate then-South Korean President Chun Do-hwan during a state visit, failed to kill Chun, who arrived late after being stuck in traffic. However, it did kill 21 others, including 17 visiting South Korean government officials. In its aftermath, ties between Burma and North Korea were completely severed for two and a half decades.
One North Korean agent was killed in a shootout with Burma’s security forces shortly after the bombing, but two were captured alive. Both of them were sentenced to death but only one was hanged. A third demolitions expert, Capt. Kang Min Chul, cooperated with the investigation, and his life was spared.
MUTUAL MILITARY NEEDS
Ironically, it was Rangoon that became the catalyst for later military cooperation between North Korea and Burma.
A thaw in relations took place in the mid-1990s after many years of no contact. North Korea’s then-ambassador to Thailand, Ri Do Sop, had been instructed by Pyongyang to contact his Burmese counterpart in Bangkok to negotiate the repatriation of Kang, who was wanted for high treason in North Korea. However, Kang was never extradited. He remained in Insein Jail, where he reportedly died of liver cancer in May 2008.
But the two international pariahs formed a bond during those secret talks in Bangkok. Both countries had difficulty trading openly through international monetary institutions because of sanctions imposed by the West, and Burma wanted to obtain more modern heavy weapons while North Korea needed food. In what appears to be a barter agreement, North Korean freighters have carried military equipment to Thilawa and Rangoon ports, and returned with tons of Burmese rice. North Korean shipments to Burma have included artillery, multiple launch rocket systems vehicles, and missile technology.
In late 1998, Burma was reported to have received a delivery of 12-16 130mm M-46 (Type 59) field guns – the first trade between North Korea and Burma since Rangoon – and the director of procurement for Burma’s Armed Forces paid an unofficial visit to Pyongyang in June 1999. A Burmese government delegation made another secret visit to North Korea in November 2000 for talks with high-ranking officials of the People’s Armed Forces Ministry.
This was followed on June 20-22, 2001 by a visit to Rangoon by a high-ranking North Korean delegation led by then-Vice Foreign Minister Park Kil Yon. On July 10 of that year, the Korea Times reported that the visit was “to discuss cooperation in the defense industry with Burma’s Deputy Defense Minister Khin Maung Win.” Park became North Korea’s ambassador to Canada in 2002 and, on May 13, 2005, he met with Joseph DeTrani, a special envoy for the United States, to discuss North Korea’s return to the Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear proliferation in Beijing, signifying that he is a very important person in the Pyongyang hierarchy.
In early 2002, Myanmar expressed interest in buying one or two small submarines from North Korea; either the Yugo class midget submarine, or the Sang-O class mini submarine. Jane’s Defence Weekly on June 11, 2003, reported that Rangoon opted for one Sang-O class submarine, but was forced to abandon the deal in late 2002. The cost of the submarine and lack of expertise in handling such a vessel might have caused Burmese authorities to change their minds.
On July 10, 2003 the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review reported that “between 15 and 20 North Korean technicians have been spotted at the Monkey Point naval base near Yangon and at a Defense Ministry guest house in the northern suburb of the (then) capital.” It was believed that North Korean technicians were helping the Burmese navy equip some of its vessels with surface-to-surface missiles.
Monkey Point is the base for the Burmese navy’s six Houxin guided missile patrol boats, which were purchased from China in the mid-1990s. Each is armed with four C-801 Eagle Strike anti-ship cruise missiles, which are also made in China. Another possibility is that North Korean technicians were installing some type of surface-to-surface missiles on the Burmese navy’s four new Myanmar class coastal patrol boats, which were manufactured locally.
MUTUALLY FEARED DESTRUCTION
The next sighting of North Korean technicians in Burma was in November 2003, when representatives of the Daesong Economic Group – an enterprise under the WPK’s Bureau 39, charged with earning foreign currency for Pyongyang – arrived in Rangoon. At about the same time, Rangoon-based Asian diplomats said that North Korean technicians had been spotted unloading large crates and heavy construction equipment from trains at Myothit, the closest station to the central Burmese town of Natmauk, near where Burma then intended install a nuclear research reactor.
Burma had embarked on a controversial nuclear program and, in 2001, signed an agreement with Russia to purchase a 10MW reactor. This led to the first speculations about North Korean involvement in Burma’s fledgling nuclear program, although all such suggestions remain unconfirmed. Nor was the Russian reactor ever delivered; the Burmese simply could not afford it.
Then, in June 2006, Asian intelligence agencies intercepted a message from the new administrative capital, Naypyidaw, confirming the arrival of a group of North Korean tunneling experts at the site. Naypyidaw, made the capital in late 2005, is in the foothills of Burma’s eastern mountains, and foreign intelligence agencies have long suspected that the most sensitive military installations in the new capital would be relocated underground.
Burma’s apparent – but according to most observers, unjustified – fear at the time was of a preemptive U.S. invasion or being the target of U.S. air strikes, fears it shares with North Korea. This was indeed seen as a major motivation behind the ruling junta’s decision to move the capital to what they perceive to be a safer mountainous location. One key component of the ties between Burma and North Korea was the latter’s expertise in tunneling. Pyongyang is known to have dug extensive tunnels under the demarcation line with South Korea as part of contingency invasion plans. Many of North Korea’s defense industries are also located underground.
With military cooperation between North Korea and Burma reaching such levels, it was hardly surprising that the two countries eventually decided to re-establish diplomatic relations. It was long believed that Burma wanted North Korea to admit to and apologize for the 1983 Rangoon bombing before diplomatic relations could be restored, but it is evident that other considerations were seen as more important, and ties were officially re-established in 2007.
For North Korea, its newly won friendship with Burma was of utmost importance. With West Asia and North Africa in turmoil, North Korea risked losing some of its oldest and most trusted customers for military hardware. Pyongyang has over the years sold missiles and missile technology to Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Syria and Iran, representing an important source of export earnings for the reclusive regime. The growing uncertainty among those trade partners could explain why North Korea began to cement ties with a client much closer to home: military-run Burma.
There were also suggestions that China was instrumental in helping Pyongyang and Naypyidaw reconcile. On April 26, 2007, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il signed an agreement with his Burmese counterpart Kyaw Thu in Rangoon to restore diplomatic relations.
“Both sides can support each other in the midst of heavy international pressure – Pyongyang for its nuclear arms program and Rangoon for its human-rights abuses…” Noted South Korean scholar Baek Hak-soon, told the Singapore-based Straits Times on April 30, 2007. “Despite their lack of bargaining leverage, Myanmar (Burma) might also be keen to learn more about North Korea’s ‘know-how’ in standing up to the U.S.”
Significantly, China also lauded the restoration of diplomatic ties between Burma and North Korea. The Straits Times quoted Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao as saying that “North Korea and Myanmar are both friendly neighbors of China. We welcome the improvement of their bilateral ties.”
In any event, in April 2007, days after the restoration of diplomatic ties between Burma and North Korea, the North Korean freighter Kang Nam I docked at Thilawa port near Rangoon. Burmese officials claimed that the ship had to seek shelter from a storm. But two local Burmese reporters working for a Japanese news agency were turned back and briefly detained when they went to the port to investigate, indicating that there could have been other, more secret reasons for the arrival of the Kang Nam I.
A REGULAR APPEARANCE
This was not the first time a North Korean ship was reported running into trouble in Burmese waters – by a strange coincidence, the 2,900-ton North Korean cargo vessel M V Bong Hoafan (Bonghwasan) sought shelter from a storm and anchored at a Myanmar port in November 2006. Burmese authorities declared that an on-board inspection had found no suspicious equipment. But journalists and embassies in Rangoon remained skeptical. It was believed to have carried self-propelled artillery and other military equipment.
In June 2009, the Kang Nam I was back again, and this time U.S. warships shadowed it on its way to Burma, suspecting that it was possibly carrying sensitive military cargo in violation of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council after North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006 and strengthened after a second test in May 2009. The freighter turned around and returned to North Korea to avoid being searched.
An NK News investigation shows that those were not isolated incidents. Shipping records from Burma show that North Korean ships have been docking regularly at the Thilawa and Yangon ports for almost a decade. Even the ill-fated Kang Nam 1 had docked in Burma long before the 2007 and 2009 incidents. The ship made its first voyage to Burma in February 2002, carrying what was declared “general cargo,” according to the shipping records.
North Korean shipments are almost invariably specified as “general goods” and sometimes “concrete,” but both ingoing and outgoing cargo is usually handled by Burma’s Ministry of Heavy Industry 2, which supervises the country’s defense industries, the armed forces’ Directorate of Defense Procurement, and the military’s own holding company, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH). This powerful conglomerate is jointly owned by the Directorate of Defense Procurement (40 percent of shares), and is made up of active and veteran defense personnel, including high-ranking military officials and veterans organizations (60 percent). In a privilege denied to private enterprises, UMEHL is exempt from all commercial and profit taxes.
When the MV Bochon, another North Korean ship, arrived at Thilawa in October 2002, the Burmese military’s high command sent a document marked “top secret” to port authorities, requesting that they clear the entire docking area for “security reasons.” They were also advised, according to the shipping records, that some “important cargo” would be offloaded within 36 hours.
Part three of NK News’ investigation into Burma’s ongoing ties with North Korea will explore how the two nations’ methods have grown more subtle. In this way, supposedly “reformed” Burma enjoys the international privileges of having cut – at least officially – its military-to-military, if not its diplomatic, ties with the North, yet the arms trade continues.
Main picture: NK News
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