YANGON — One of the key foreign policies of the Trump administration has involved a strategic rebalancing with Asia to deal with China’s rising power, but Trump’s focus so far has been on intensifying the pressure on nuclear-armed North Korea. Myanmar is not on his radar. Nevertheless, he is sending Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to meet Myanmar’s top leaders to discuss the situation in Rakhine State.
Yet what about Myanmar’s past shady connections with North Korea? Will Tillerson raise the issue with his Myanmar counterparts when he meets them later this month?
This is an area in which the United States can open a frank discussion as Myanmar’s leaders in the past have maintained a close relationship with the North Korean regime that included arms sales, missile development and the construction of secretive underground defense facilities. Some Myanmar generals have even been placed on a sanctions list as a result of their military links to Pyongyang. Among them was Gen Thein Htay, who as head of the Directorate of Defense Industries was a key person in negotiating arms procurement with North Korea.
In July, US envoy Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special North Korea representative, visited Myanmar where he met Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Yun was in Myanmar’s capital to discuss Myanmar’s ties with North Korea, prompting analysts to question Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s role and how much she knew about the military’s secretive activities and past links to North Korea and the current nature of relations between the two countries, including defense activities.
In recent years, the United States has been pressuring Myanmar to sever its remaining links with Pyongyang as it transitions away from military rule. However, it is believed that some military officials and businessmen in Myanmar have continued to maintain interactions with Pyongyang.
In July, the Asia Times published an article citing anonymous intelligence sources suggesting that North Korean instructors based at the defense services’ educational institutes in Pyin Oo Lwin northeast of Mandalay, have recently provided training on computerized fire control systems for battleships and assisted the Myanmar military in missile development at a top-secret defense industry complex near Minhla in the central Magwe Region and likely at other secret sites as well.
In his meeting with Yun, Min Aung Hlaing said that Myanmar only had “friend countries,” not enemies, and desired to have relations with militaries across the world.
Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry responded by saying that Naypyitaw maintains only “normal relations” with Pyongyang and “definitely not” military-to-military relations.
Under the previous regime, Gen Shwe Mann, who ranked No. 3 in the ruling junta, travelled to North Korea and signed a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation in November 2008. The Myanmar team, which was led by senior military leaders, visited defense facilities and studied an air defense system, weapons factories, and ships. The former house speaker is now considered to be close to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Early this year, the Myanmar government expelled a North Korean diplomat.
“The government took necessary action against Mr. Kim Chol-nam, a national of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea working as a second secretary at the embassy of the DPRK in Yangon, Myanmar, who reportedly belonged to the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation,” a document dated Oct. 6 from the Permanent Mission of Myanmar to the United Nations said.
The company is subject to both UN Security Council and US sanctions for alleged involvement in exporting equipment that can be used in the development of ballistic missiles and conventional weapons.