23 April 2007

North Korea, Myanmar: Tyrannical Ties...

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il (not to be confused with newly-named Premier Kim Yong Il) is expected to arrive in Naypyidaw (the new capital of Myanmar) April 25, and the following day sign the agreement to re-establish normal diplomatic relations between the two “outposts of tyranny.” Should these events actually take place as the rumors suggest, North Korea and Myanmar would finally put behind them the 1983 North Korean assassination attempt on then-South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan, which took place October 9 at the Aung San Martyr’s Mausoleum. In the botched assassination attempt (the explosion occurred before Chun arrived), 17 South Koreans, including four cabinet ministers, were killed and four Burmese were also killed. At least 14 others were injured in the attack, carried out by three North Korean agents, allegedly on the orders of Kim Jong Il himself. (This was, interestingly, one of the last acts recognized by the U.S. State Department of state sponsored terrorism carried out by North Korea.) Since the early 1990s, North Korea and Myanmar have begun a series of informal exchanges, including talks on releasing the final North Korean held for the 1983 bombing, alleged military cooperation (Pyongyang reportedly sold a dozen or so 130mm M-46 field artillery pieces and some 20 million rounds of 7.62mm ammunition to Myanmar in exchange for rice in the late 1990s or early 2000s), and North Korean assistance in preparing the Naypyidaw (then known as Pyinmana) site for the new capital (Pyongyang’s expertise in tunneling has been rather useful for the SPDC, allegedly). In 2000, prior to the inter-Korean summit, North Korea approached ASEAN to request membership in the ASEAN Regional Forum, and not long thereafter, in July, Pyongyang normalized diplomatic relations with Manila, leaving Myanmar the only ASEAN state without formal diplomatic ties with North Korea. Myanmar assented to Pyongyang’s involvement in the ARF, however, and in 200 and 2001 hinted that it was considering re-establishing diplomatic relations. In November, 2000, a Myanmar government delegation paid a secret visit to Pyongyang, and in June 2001, a North Korean delegation, led by a vice foreign minister, visited Myanmar. In 2002, Myanmar was still only “considering” the normalization of relations. In 2003, North Korean technicians reportedly helped build a bunker complex in Taungdwingyi (to the Northwest of Naypyidaw) to house Myanmar’s MiG-29s bought from Russia. (It is quite possible that in return for the construction work, North Korean pilots trained on the MiGs.) In 2003, other North Korean technicians were spotted near the Monkey Point naval base, south of Yangon, raising speculation Pyongyang was selling ship to ship missiles to the SPDC. And there are other reports that Pyongyang (and perhaps China) aided Myanmar in upgrading radar stations near Victoria point to monitor Thai-U.S. naval exercises. There are wilder claims – of North Korea assisting Myanmar in a nuclear program, or even selling it nuclear missiles, but these fall far outside the realm of North Korean activity, and come from dissident sources out to shape international viewpoints. What is clear, however, is that North Korea and Myanmar have been at least mulling diplomatic ties for a while, and have been engaged in various forms of cooperation for even longer. And if the reports of North Korean assistance in building the underground bunker and tunnel system around Naypyidaw are accurate, the SPDC certainly trusts North Korea enough to share its most sensitive security secrets. In 2006, the two countries agreed in principle to normalize relations, and in early April 2007, there were numerous leaks of the imminent visit of a North Korean delegation to Naypyidaw to finally normalize relations, nearly two and a half decades after the October 9 incident. On April 19, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il left Pyongyang for a multi-nation Asian visit, with no destination named (but hints as he was seen off at the airport by envoys from Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Iran.) His visit to Myanmar fits right into the flight path. Much of the talk of the normalization between the two centers on the potential dangers of two pariahs, two outposts of tyranny, getting together. This is rather silly. They already cooperate. For North Korea, the resumption of diplomatic ties has much more to do with ASEAN than with some nefarious plotting among the Axis of Evil and the Axis of nearly Evil. Pyongyang, since 2000, has been seeking diplomatic ties all over the place, trying to break free from the economic and political constraints of its acrimonious relationship with the United States. While it joined ARF, it never finalized cooperation with ASEAN, due to the lack of formal ties with Myanmar. But with the success (or at least hints of success) with South Korea getting Washington to at least consider counting Kaesong-made goods as fitting within the FTA, and with the South Korea-ASEAN FTA coming onto effect June 1, Pyongyang sees a way to increase its economic contacts throughout Southeast Asia, riding on the coattails of South Korea. Add in the recent ten point economic agreement between Seoul and Pyongyang, which calls for joint development of mineral resources in third countries, and you have a North Korea looking perhaps at joining in the South Korean natural gas exploration in Myanmar. And if folks get all worked up about two “evil” nations having diplomatic ties, well, North Korea wont lose any sleep over that.

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