It was in many ways a landmark visit.
This June Shwe Mann, speaker of the lower house of the Burmese parliament, spent nine days touring the United States. In Washington, he met Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, among other leading U.S. legislators. He held meetings with Burmese exiles in San Francisco – long staunch opponents of the military dictatorship in their home country – and paid a visit to the United Nations in New York.
Shwe Mann’s visit was remarkable not only because he, a former general, had been among the leaders of Burma’s pre-2010 ruling junta, barred from entering the United States for years for their gross violations of human rights – but also because he in late 2008 led a Burmese military delegation to North Korea.
In North Korea, Shwe Mann and his fellow officers inspected missile factories, air force bases and radar stations. Shwe Mann also signed a memorandum of understanding for military cooperation with Gen. Kim Kuok Sik, North Korea’s then Chief of General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). And that cozy relationship between Burma and North Korea, rather than any human rights concerns, is the main reason why the United States decided to change its Burma policy from one of isolation, condemnation and sanctions to engagement and promises of all kinds support in civilian as well as military fields.
Washington’s policy of containment of China may be the longer-term objective of Washington’s new Burma policy, but the U.S. did definitely not want to see a North Korean ally smack in the middle of South and Southeast Asia. It was time to act, and relations between Burma and the United States – two former adversaries – began to improve soon after the current president, Thein Sein, assumed office in March 2011.
Disgruntled Burmese government officials leaked details about Shwe Mann’s secret visit to Pyongyang in November 2008. Pictures of him signing the MOU with Kim and inspecting radar stations and missile factories even appeared on the Internet. One of the Burmese delegates wrote in an internal commentary on the MOU: “The military of the two countries will have to conduct joint military training and practice. The Burmese military proposes to have priority in training for special units, military security, for tunnel inspections, air defense, and language learning of the two countries.”
He went on to state it had been agreed that “the military of the two countries will provide aid and make joint efforts in building tunnels to keep airplanes and ships, as well as other military buildings and underground buildings. The military of the two countries will have joint efforts in modernizing weapons and military equipment and exchange experiences.”
Apart from meeting Kim, the Burmese delegation also held talks with Gen. Kim Su of the KPA Air Force, Vice Admiral Kim Khan Son of the KPA Navy, tank brigade commander Col. Kim Ton Yong, radar factory director Kang Man Su, chief engineer Li Tae Song at the Igla missile factory, Kim Su Gil, the director of the SCUD missile factory as well as officials of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and dignitaries at the Kim Il Sung Military University. It was a very successful and fruitful visit, the Burmese delegates concluded in their report.
All that is now supposed to be history. During a May 2012 visit by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Thein Sein himself told Lee that there would be no more shipments of arms and other weaponry from North Korea. Even so, cooperation between Burma and North Korea has continued, which became obvious on July 2, when the U.S. Department of the Treasury blacklisted Lieutenant-General Thein Htay, head of Burma’s Directorate of Defense Industries, for involvement “in the illicit trade of North Korean arms.”
The statement curiously went on to state that the measure did not target the government of Burma, which “has continued to take positive steps in severing its military ties with North Korea.” Any sensible observer would argue it would have been impossible for him to have acted independently in such a highly sensitive matter. Policymakers in Washington no doubt understand this, but wanted to send a strong signal to the Burmese government that they are aware of the continued cooperation without directly confronting America’s new ally.
In late August, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met his counterparts from the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Brunei – including Lt.-Gen. Wai Lwin, the Burmese defense minister – and conveyed a message from President Barack Obama who, Hagel said, is very pleased with the reform process in Burma, especially the progress “that’s been made on human rights.” But there was an important caveat in Hagel’s statement that indicated Washington’s main concern.
“It’s important that Burma sever ties with North Korea,” Hagel said. Evidently, Burma had not done so, despite pressure from Washington and, it is believed, from Japan and South Korea behind the scenes. Talks about human rights and democracy are just window dressing.
In fact, evidence abounds that weapons exchanges continue, only more discretely.
Part two of this story will reveal the origins of the North Korea-Burma relationship, and how the North became the most reliable supporter of the Burmese government’s military ambitions. It appears to be a relationship that could not simply be undone simply through a new arrangement with the U.S.
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