In November 2010 Burma held its general elections which, while derided for their irregularities at the time, have since been seen as a turning point.
Four months later the nation’s military junta dissolved after 23 years in power. Famed dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for 15 out of the previous 21 years, was released and more than 200 political prisoners granted amnesty. Restrictions on political activity, labor protests and press freedom were relaxed.
And it appeared that a U.S.-led endeavor to reach out to Burma had succeeded, as Burma formally renounced its arms dealings with North Korea. However, months before those fall 2010 elections, a sign of the real change in North Korean-Burmese relations could be witnessed.
STRANGE SHIPPING REQUESTS
When Burma’s MV Chong Gen vessel approached Thilawa on April 12, 2010, it asked for permission to fly a Burmese flag instead of its North Korean one, according to the shipping records.
The captain also requested a Burmese SMC (smart media card) for a mobile phone, along with coastal charts. These were odd requests for a ship that was officially carrying 2,900 tons of cement and 2,105 tons of “general goods” from the North Korean port of Nampo.
Indeed, the requests made by North Korean ships traveling to Burma have often been outright bizarre. MV Du Man Gangappears to be one of the most regular North Korean visitors at Thilawa. In July 2009, on one of its many trips to Burma, it asked for 150 crates of Myanmar brandy. In March 2010, when another North Korean ship, the MV Kan Baek San, arrived in Burma, the North Korean ambassador asked for an unspecified quantity of Myanmar vodka to be sent to the ship, according to the shipping records. A plausible explanation is that the North Koreans intended to put the Burmese vodka and brandy in new, fancier bottles with Western brand names, and resell them to unsuspecting customers. North Korea has a long tradition of financing its overseas diplomatic missions with the sale of “duty free liquor.”
The involvement of North Korean diplomats in these shipments is otherwise more convoluted. In September 2009, the MV Sam Il Po docked at a smaller terminal in Yangon and both the North Korean ambassador Kim Sok Chol and defense attaché Kim Kwang Chol were present to inspect the cargo along with Lt. Col. Thein Toe from the Burmese military. The unspecified cargo was received by UMEH, which in return supplied 1,500 tons of rice that was taken back to North Korea.
That was not the only incident in which North Korean freighters returned with Burmese rice. The MV So Hung arrived in November 2008 with 295 tons of material for the Ministry of Defense and left with 500 tons of rice. When the MV Du Man Gang docked in July 2009 it left with not only brandy but also 8,000 tons of rice. In June 2010, the MV An San arrived with 7,022 tons of what was alleged to be “concrete” and left in July with 7,000 tons of rice.
Apart from barter arrangements, trade between North Korea and Burma is also being done through front companies. In June 2010, the North Korean freighter MV Ryu Gong arrived with 12,838 tons of what was described as “cement.” While the shipment was handled by the Ministry of Heavy Industry 2, the stated recipient was a little-known Burmese company known as Shwe Me, or “black gold.” Port documents show that the company has nearly $1 million in assets, but what it actually intended to do with all that cement is unclear. Just as puzzling is the involvement of Singapore-based shipping companies, which handle most of the cargo’s logistics and operate under innocuous sounding names including words like “maritime” and “services.” One of the companies has a distinctly Korean name but is actually based in Singapore.
According to several reports, including an August 27, 2004 United States embassy cable from Rangoon made public by WikiLeaks in 2010, North Korean workers were assembling surface-to-air missiles at a military site in Magway Division where a concrete-reinforced underground facility was also under construction. The U.S. cable stated that “a source told the embassy that ‘he had seen a large barge carrying a reinforced steel bar of a diameter that suggested a project larger than a factory.’”
NK News has discovered that the site referred to in the embassy cable is kapa sa10 (Or “Defense Industry No 10”) situated near Konegyi village in Minhla township. Construction of the site began in 1993, but has only recently been completed. The site reportedly covers 6,000 acres and, according to a source who used to work at the facility, the aim is to produce surface-to-air, surface-to-surface and air-to-air missiles. The same source, who requested anonymity for personal security reasons, claimed that the North Koreans working at the site first entered Burma discreetly by road from China. They were met at the border and then brought to Minhla by officers from Burma’s Defense Production Directorate, known as Ka Ka Htone, according to the source.
Another, even more mysterious industrial complex is at Sidoktaya near Magway Region’s border with Rakhine State. Designated as Ka Pa Sa 20, 100,000 acres have been cleared for the facility and Google Earth imagery shows a helicopter landing pad and unusually long buildings. It is staffed by 400 soldiers, military engineers and officers, many of them Russian-trained in nuclear physics, leading to speculation that it could be one of several locations in Burma where nuclear-related research is being carried out. Missiles research has also been mentioned as a possible activity at Sidoktaya. Close to Ka Pa Sa 20 is a new hydroelectric power station to provide a steady source of electricity to the top-secret facility.
WHY TIES PERSIST
It is still unclear precisely why the Burmese military believes it needs the sophisticated missile technology it has already acquired and is still acquiring from North Korea. A basic SCUD-type missile such as North Korea’s Hwasong 5 or Hwasong 6 has a range of 320-500 kilometers, while a Nodong, the kind of technology that Iran and Pakistan have acquired from Pyongyang, has a range of up to 1,500 kilometers. But does Burma have any regional enemies that need to be deterred from mounting attacks, which is the usual purpose for obtaining such weapons?
The concise answer is no, but there are other strategic reasons for developing a “strong, capable and modern” military, as then junta chairman Senior General Than Shwe emphasized in a speech as early as in 1996. In the past, the Burmese army was predominantly a light infantry force whose main duty was to fight the country’s numerous ethnic and political insurgents. Many observers now argue that the main purpose of the military is to provide a show of force to deter political opponents from challenging, as the new 2008 constitution enshrines, its “leading role” in ‘”national politics.’”
Moreover, the Burmese military has visions – some would argue delusions – of grandeur. One intelligence source described the missile program as a “phallic fantasy,” a Burmese-produced large projectile that top generals would like to show off at the annual March 27 Armed Forces Day parade. “Just imagine how proud they would be to see a truck towing a big and impressive missile past the grandstand,” the source said.
Since relations with the United States and the West began to improve in 2011, North Korean ships have told to be more discreet and no longer fly their own flag when entering Burmese waters. According to a well-placed source in Rangoon, they use flags of convenience, usually from some Central American country. Shwe Mann, now a “parliamentarian,” may no longer be North Korea’s point man in Burma. But the main business partner in Burma is still UMEH.The North’s Korea Central New Agency (KCNA) has made several references to meetings and communications with Than Tun, the company’s general director for Administrative Affairs.
The most recent KCNA dispatch mentioning Than Tun is dated June 23 this year. According to the North Koreans, the UMEH official said in a statement: “The U.S. imperialists ignited a war against (North Korea), but its army and people under the leadership of President Kim Il Sung, the invincible and iron-willed commander, achieved a shining victory by fully displaying patriotism and popular heroism.”
“We extend full support and firm solidarity to the Korean people in their struggle for building a thriving nation and achieving the reunification of the country under the leadership of the dear respected Kim Jong Un,” Tun went on to say after praising Kim Jong Il.
“The U.S. imperialists” are now trying everything they can to lure Burma away from its alliance with North Korea. But the trade with North Korea is no doubt continuing.
“The Chinese would never sell sophisticated machinery or equipment and Russian smugglers are too cunning,” a Burmese military source said. “In these circumstances, North Korea is still Burma’s most reliable supplier.”
And, given years of hostility with the West, it would be surprising if Burma decided to throw in its lot exclusively with the United States and totally sever ties with an old ally like North Korea. Burma has always maintained a balance in its relations with outside powers – and relations with North Korea could also be a useful bargaining chip if and when Naypyidaw wants more concessions from the United States.
In November 2010 Burma held its general elections which, while derided for their irregularities at the time, have since been seen as a turning point.Four months later the nation’s military junta dissolved after 23 years in power. Famed dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for 15 out of the previous 21 years, was released and more than 200 political prisoners granted amnesty.
Bertil Lintner (born 1953) is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades. He was formerly the Burma correspondent of the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review and currently works as a correspondent for Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and Politiken of Denmark.