Why Myanmar–North Korea relations have persisted in an era of reform

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Author: Adam P MacDonald, Halifax

Since assuming power in 2011, the pseudo-civilian government of President Sein has begun to fundamentally transform Myanmar’s foreign relations by re-engaging with the West.

In 2012, as part of the government’s attempt to strengthen ties with Washington, and to dispel any lingering concerns over Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions, Sein announced that relations with Pyongyang would come to an end.

But there are two recent developments which have called this announcement into question: first, the recent sanctions imposed by the US Treasury on Lieutenant General Thein Htlay, Director of Defence Industries of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), for conducting arms sales with North Korea; and second, the March 2013 interception of a suspicious North Korean shipment of aluminium rods (which most likely have a military application) to Myanmar.

Myanmar–North Korea relations have been characterised by multiple periods of engagement and estrangement. After nearly a decade long hiatus, in the 1990s the military junta re-established a trading relationship with Pyongyang which saw Myanmar export rice, timber and rubber in exchange for North Korean weaponry and military technical assistance. At this point, both states were international pariahs, under heavy international sanctions and ruled by regimes deeply concerned about US intervention. Their burgeoning relationship received worldwide attention in 2009 when a number of shipments of dual use technologies, and accounts from defectors, indicated that Myanmar was developing a nascent nuclear weapons program with North Korean assistance (although there is still no decisive evidence that Myanmar does or ever did have such a program, or that North Korea was involved).

The key question now is whether Naypyidaw is trying to have it both ways, reaping the benefits of improving Western relations but maintaining ties with North Korea to improve its military capabilities. At present, there is too little information about the details leading up to the sanctions on Lieutenant General Htlay to determine the extent to which Naypyidaw has maintained clandestine ties. Sustaining relations with Pyongyang could derail ties with the West. Yet there may be entities within the government and military that have maintained links to Pyongyang in an unofficial context, outside the purview of official government policy.

Htlay, for example, heads the Tatmadaw’s Directorate of Defence industries, which is heavily invested in the development of short-range missiles, a technology that Pyongyang has assisted with in the past. The Tatmadaw and North Korean military have developed personal and institutional relations over the years, which may have motivated both sides to preserve ties. This is especially likely given the increasingly diffuse power landscape in Myanmar, which has increased the independence of the military. Initially seen as one and the same, the Tatmadaw and cadre of retired officers forming the government now consist of a myriad of distinct, and at times conflicting, institutional identities and interests which complicate attempts to describe them as one monolithic and unified actor. Acts to preserve relations with North Korea could therefore be happening with the government’s awareness but without its involvement and/or ability to stop them. If this is indeed the case, then it raises deep concerns over the degree of control, authority and knowledge that Naypyidaw has of the military’s dealings, which would also demonstrate a need for the central government to maintain more structured oversight of the military. Another possibility is that the regime, or parts of it, are still wary of Western interference and are continuing to make arms deals with North Korea to prepare for such an eventuality.

Beyond this, Washington’s decision to sanction Htlay as an individual, rather than the government as a whole, demonstrates an appreciation of the new power realities in Myanmar. The West should continue to build ties with individuals and organisations that are supportive of the reform process, while encouraging the isolation and marginalisation of recalcitrant elements.

Could it also be that Washington’s contest with China for influence in the region is making it reluctant to criticise Myanmar? To what extent is the United States willing to roll back relations if parts of Sein’s regime refuse or are incapable of fully ceasing their dealings with Pyongyang? This remains uncertain but it would be quite a gamble on Naypyidaw’s part to assume that they could avoid choosing between Washington and Pyongyang.  

The heart of the matter is that Myanmar is still shut off from accessing supplies and assistance with missile technologies through sanctions that the West has not yet lifted. Both are still of ongoing interest to the Tatmadaw and perhaps some in the government. Myanmar has a long history of avoiding being part of any one block and working with whatever entity best achieves what it desires. The West must continue to encourage and support Myanmar’s transition by making it clear that the benefits of working with it outweigh what North Korea can offer. It also needs to assure the military that there is no threat of foreign intervention or meddling, and therefore no need to risk international sanctions and diplomatic isolation to acquire certain weapons and capabilities. This would eventually motivate all actors in Myanmar to completely abandon any remaining links with Pyongyang.

Adam P MacDonald is an independent researcher based in Halifax, Canada.
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