One doesn’t have to look far to discover that the North Koreans have arrived in Yangon. The Pyongyang Koryo restaurant on Saya San Road in Bahan Township is part of a chain of North Korean eateries in the region that earn badly needed foreign exchange for the cash-strapped government in Pyongyang. There are similar restaurants in various Chinese cities, in Vientiane in Laos, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia, and, until recently, in Bangkok and Pattaya in Thailand.
But there is a more sinister side to North Korea’s presence in Myanmar than just serving hot pots, cold noodles and kimchi. For more than a decade, North Korea has been an important supplier of military hardware to Myanmar. North Korean tunneling experts have also helped the Myanmar authorities build bunkers and other underground facilities.
Years of quiet military cooperation between Myanmar and North Korea were formalized in November 2008, when Gen. Thura Shwe Mann, then number three in the military hierarchy and now the speaker of the Union Parliament, paid a secret visit to Pyongyang and signed a memorandum of understanding with Gen. Kim Kyok-sik, the chief of the North Korean military.
It is that agreement—and North Korea’s general relationship with Myanmar—that made the United States change its Myanmar policy from one of isolation, condemnation and sanctions to one of engagement and promises of all kinds support in civilian as well as military fields.
While containing China may be the longer-term objective of the new US approach to Myanmar, its more immediate goal is to prevent North Korea from forging strong ties with an ally strategically located at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia. After years of treating Myanmar as a pariah state, Washington decided it was time to act and moved to improve its relations with the country soon after President U Thein Sein assumed office in March 2011.
But even so, cooperation between Myanmar and North Korea has continued, which became obvious on July 2of this year, when Lt-Gen Thein Htay, the head of Myanmar’s Directorate of Defense Industries, was blacklisted by the US Department of the Treasury because he “is involved in the illicit trade of North Korean arms.”
The statement curiously went on to state that the sanction did not target the government of Myanmar, which it said “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 over such a highly sensitive matter. Policymakers in Washington no doubt understand this, but wanted to send a strong signal to the Myanmar government that they are aware of the continued cooperation without directly confronting the president.
In April 2007, North Korea and Myanmar reestablished diplomatic relations which had been cut in October 1983, when North Korean agents detonated a powerful bomb in the then capital Yangon that killed 21 people, including 17 visiting South Korean government officials. But until then, relations had been quite friendly, so the resumption of ties in 2007 was not really unexpected.
Both North and South Korea maintained unofficial “consulates” in Yangon as long as U Nu was prime minister. Following the 1962 military takeover, formal relations were established with both Koreas, but Yangon’s relations with Pyongyang tended to be warmer than those with Seoul.
In 1966, the official News Agency Burma signed an agreement with Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, which was permitted to employ a Myanmar citizen as its correspondent in Yangon. In 1977, military strongman Gen. Ne Win paid an official visit to Pyongyang, and North Korea became the first communist-ruled country to establish fraternal links with the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), at the time Myanmar’s only legally permitted political party. Subsequently, in 1980, a BSPP delegation attended the 6th Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in Pyongyang.
Under an economic agreement negotiated during Gen. Ne Win’s 1977 visit, North Korea helped Myanmar to build and operate a tin smelter, a glass-manufacturing plant, a hydroelectric plant and a synthetic textiles plant. North Korea also provided Myanmar with industrial products, including machinery, tools, cement and chemicals. In return, Myanmar exported cotton, rubber, wood, rice and minerals to North Korea. But there is no evidence of arms transfers during this time.
Myanmar’s eagerness to maintain cordial relations with North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s may have been prompted by Pyongyang’s then policy to support revolutionary movements all over the world. Myanmar was at that time facing a serious communist insurgency—and it did not want to have North Korea as an enemy. Only China, never North Korea, supplied the Communist Party of Burma with weapons and provided other support.
Ironically, the 1983 Yangon bombing became the catalyst for military cooperation between Pyongyang and Myanmar. One North Korean agent had been killed in a shootout with Myanmar’s security forces shortly after the bombing. But two were captured alive. Both of them were sentenced to death but only one, Maj. Zin Mo, was hanged. The third demolitions expert, Capt. Kang Min-chul, decided to cooperate with the investigation, and his life was spared.
For over a decade, there were no exchanges of any kind between the two countries, but a thaw in relations took part in the mid-1990s. North Korea’s then ambassador in Bangkok, Ri Do-sop, had been instructed by Pyongyang to contact his Myanmar counterpart to negotiate the repatriation of Capt. Kang, who was wanted for high treason in North Korea. However, Kang was never extradited. He remained in Insein Jail where he reportedly died of liver cancer in May 2008.
But the two then pariah countries found each other during those secret talks in Bangkok. Both countries had difficulty trading openly through international monetary institutions because of sanctions imposed by the West—while Myanmar wanted to obtain more modern, heavy weapons, North Korea needed food. In what appears to be a barter agreement, North Korean freighters carried military equipment to Thilawa and Yangon ports, and returned with tons of Myanmar rice. North Korean shipments to Myanmar have included artillery, multiple launch rocket systems vehicles and, most probably, missile technology.
Now, the situation has changed dramatically, at least for Myanmar, but the trade is continuing.
“The Chinese would never sell sophisticated machinery or equipment and Russian smugglers are too cunning. In these circumstances, North Korea is still Myanmar’s most reliable supplier,” said one Myanmar military source, explaining why Naypyitaw and Pyongyang seem intent on maintaining their relationship.
Indeed, given the years of hostility with the West, it would be surprising if Myanmar decided to throw in its lot exclusively with the United States and totally sever ties with an old ally like North Korea. Myanmar has always maintained a balance in its relations with outside powers—and relations with North Korea could also be a useful bargaining chip when Naypyitaw wants more concessions from the United States.
So for the foreseeable future, kimchi is not likely to be the only thing that North Korea exports to Myanmar.
Bertil Lintner is a journalist and author of numerous books on Myanmar and Asia, including “Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan”.
This story first appeared in the October 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.