N. Korea faces rough ride in ties with Myanmar

Shin Hyon-hee in Seoul/The Korea Herald
Asia News Network

Seoul (The Korea Herald/ANN) - While US President Barack Obama builds his legacy in Myanmar, his trip sheds new light on the Southeast Asia country's military relationship with its traditional partner, North Korea.

His three-country tour is chiefly designed to boost Washington's strategic "pivot" to the region, reward sweeping political and economic reforms in the once pariah nation and check the growing influence of China, one of its biggest patrons.

Obama also used his historic visit to pressure Pyongyang to follow its old comrade's path toward reforms and opening to the outside world.

"You're taking a journey that has the potential to inspire so many people," Obama said in a speech at the University of Yangon on Monday.

"To the leadership of North Korea, I have offered a choice: Let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you will find an extended hand from the United States of America," Obama said.

The US leader repeated his pledge to "be a friend to any nation that respects the rights of its citizens and the responsibilities of international law."

As Myanmar's military junta bowed out of its half-century dictatorship last year, Washington, Europe and other democracies have lifted a bulk of economic sanctions and forgiven massive amounts of debt. High-profile official visits and outside investment and reconstruction aid have been rushing in.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, had been a strategically vital partner for the communist North since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1975.

The country severed ties following a 1983 terrorist bombing in the then capital by North Korean operatives which killed 17 visiting Seoul officials. But their covert partnership has apparently picked up since its 2007 restoration.

A perennial thorn in the West's side has been suspected arms trade and nuclear cooperation between the two countries during long years of Myanmar's junta rule.

"We've had a dialogue with the Burmese government about the need to reduce their relationship with North Korea," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters Saturday.

His remarks echo concerns expressed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Cambodia in July 2011. She urged Myanmar's President Thein Sein to end arms trade with Pyongyang. Thein Sein responded that his government had no nuclear relationship with the North and was reviewing their military ties.

Washington had detected attempts by the North to transfer its nuclear and missile technologies since its atomic test in October 2006.

Richard Lugar, a Republican senator, said in November last year that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee received information about five years ago that the Myanmar government was trying to develop nuclear weapons with the help of Pyongyang. A 2010 United Nations report claimed that the regime had supplied banned atomic and ballistic equipment to Iran, Syria and Myanmar.

Despite recent "positive steps," Obama would call on Sein once again to "reinforce that action" and "break its military ties with the North Koreans," Rhodes said.

However, many analysts expect the bilateral ties and clandestine transactions to have diminished on the heels of Myanmar's internal political reforms and western engagement.

"There seems quite an overly sensitive reaction from the US side," said Jang Jun-young, a Myanmar expert at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies in Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

"Even in the past when Myanmar said it intended to develop nuclear weapons it did not have the capability to do so. Its public declaration was more like a show of force."

With relations with the West improving, the new government has resorted to dialogue and diplomatic breakthroughs, thus undermining the need to deal with the North, he noted.

"In the past, their trade assumed a form of barter-Myanmar had rice surpluses and weaponry is the only item North Korea had enough of. But it's highly possible right now that there is no arms trade between them," Jang added.

As for the North, it remains to be seen whether young leader Kim Jong-un heeds the lessons from its former partner.

Despite the new leadership's apparent willingness to jumpstart the crumbling economy, any concrete measures have yet to be taken and the people remain impoverished and oppressed. A web of UN-imposed sanctions targeting its nuclear projects has suffocated revenue streams and outside assistance.

"A withering relationship with Myanmar is not likely to have a big impact on North Korea, nor would the regime want to maintain the 'rogue circle' given Obama's new approach," said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea studies professor at Korea University in Seoul.

"Myanmar's opening may serve as a reference but is unlikely to give big motivation to North Korea-they've received so many similar messages from China, the Middle East and other places. Based on its past behaviour, the regime would rather strive to find countermeasures to avoid becoming another Myanmar.