Military links between North Korea and Myanmar, possibly extending to nuclear cooperation, have been a subject of significant concern to Washington. But relations between the two Asian countries have not always been so cozy. On 9 October 1983 seventeen South Koreans, including Presidential Secretary for Economic Affair Kim Jae-ik, Deputy Prime Minister and EPB head Seo Seok-jun, Foreign Minister Lee Beom-seok, Minister of Energy Suh Sang-chul, and Minister of Commerce and Industry Kim Dong-whie, were killed while visiting the Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar) by North Korean commandos in a bombing aimed at Chun Doo-hwan, who escaped unhurt. The bombing, on the grounds of the Martyrs Mausoleum honoring Burmese independence leader Aung San, enraged the Burmese, and the country suspended its diplomatic relations with North Korea in response.
During a recent visit to Myanmar, current and former government officials traced the thawing of relations to the early 1990s. In the late 1980s, Burma’s military government violently suppressed political protests as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) assumed power. In response, the US first suspended aid programs, then in 1990 imposed sanctions. In the context of deteriorating relations, the iconic footage shown repeatedly on CNN of a US smart bomb going down the air vent of a bunker during Operation Desert Storm made quite an impression in Yangon (as it did in Pyongyang). By that time, General Ne Win, who had been the effective leader of the country at the time of the Rangoon bombing and is said to have taken deep personal offense at the North Korean action, was out of power. Concerned about the possibility of a US invasion, the SLORC initiated a number of actions, including relocating the country’s capital to a remote location…and reaching out to North Korea for military assistance.
The current and former officials with whom I spoke repeatedly denied that there had been any cooperation in the nuclear sphere, but did admit that Myanmar had purchased ground-to-air missile defense systems from North Korea. Apparently these have not been entirely paid for, and while the officials indicated that the government intended to abide by UN Security Council resolutions and cease future military transactions with North Korea, they still needed to pay for the missiles. They further asserted that this had been explained to the US government which was copacetic. My impression is that the US government would not characterize its views in quite this fashion. “Trust, but verify” might be closer to the mark. We reported on the charges in a number of posts around the time of Hillary Clinton’s ground-breaking visit in 2011. Needless to say, the sources of some of this speculation were motivated in the fashion of the Iraqi expatriates and could not necessarily be taken at face value.
Aside from military relations, are developments in Myanmar of any deeper relevance to North Korea? Both US and South Korean officials have held up the tentative opening under President Thein Sein as a potential model for North Korea, a comparison that surely evokes bristles in Pyongyang. Yet as Financial Times editor Lionel Barber put it, Myanmar’s generals have been driven by “fear, shame, and pride,” motives to which Pyongyang’s leadership presumably are equally sensitive. In Barber’s words, “Fear that backward Myanmar was becoming a client state of China. Shame that Myanmar was being treated like a pariah, as reviled as North Korea or Zimbabwe. Pride in Myanmar’s glorious imperial past and rich cultural heritage – enough to earn the country a seat at the top table in southeast Asia.” While the specifics differ, it is not hard to draw the parallel to North Korea.