Burma and North Korea, Brothers in Arms

An alliance that threatens the Asia-Pacific region and farther-flung shores, too.

By AUNG ZAW From today’s Wall Street Journal Asia.

The North Korean ship that tried to steam to Burma last month isn’t the only problem facing the U.S. and its allies. There’s a much broader military relationship growing between the two pariah states — one that poses a growing threat to stability in Asia-Pacific.

A government report leaked by a Burmese official last month shed new light on these ties. It described a Memorandum of Understanding between Burma and North Korea signed during a secret visit by Burmese officials to Pyongyang in November 2008. The visit was the culmination of years of work. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were cut in 1983 following a failed assassination attempt by North Korean agents on the life of South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan while he was visiting Rangoon. The attack cost 17 Korean lives and Burma cut off ties.

One of the first signs of warming relations was a barter agreement between the two countries that lasted from 2000 to 2006 and saw Burma receive between 12 and 16 M-46 field guns and as many as 20 million rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition from North Korea, according to defense analyst Andrew Selth of Griffith University in Australia. In exchange, Burma bartered food and rice.

The two countries formally re-established diplomatic relations in April 2007. After that, the North Korean ship the Kang Nam — the same ship that recently turned away from Burma after being followed by the U.S. navy — made a trip to Burma’s Thilawa port. Western defense analysts concluded that the ship carried conventional weapons and missiles to Burma.
This laid the ground for the MoU signed in November, when Shwe Mann, the regime’s third-most powerful figure, made a secret visit to North Korea, according to the leaked report. Shwe Mann is the chief of staff of the army, navy and air force, and the coordinator of Special Operations. He spent seven days in Pyongyang, traveling via China. His 17-member delegation received a tour around Pyongyang and Myohyang, where secret tunnels have been built into mountains to shelter aircraft, missiles, tanks and nuclear and chemical weapons.

The MoU he signed formalizes the military cooperation between the two countries. According to the terms of the document, North Korea will build or supervise the construction of special Burmese military facilities, including tunnels and caves in which missiles, aircraft and even naval ships could be hidden. Burma will also receive expert training for its special forces, air defense training, plus a language training program between personnel in the two armed forces.

Shwe Mann’s delegation also visited a surface-to-surface missile factory, partially housed in tunnels, on the outskirts of Pyongyang to observe missile production. The Burmese were particularly interested in short-range 107 mm and 240 mm multirocket launchers — a multipurpose, defensive missile system used in case of a foreign invasion. Also of great interest was the latest in antitank, laser-guided missile technology.

To suppress ethic insurgents and urban dissent, the regime doesn’t need such sophisticated weapons. Burma’s desire for missiles, airborne warning and control system, air defense systems, GPS communication jammers and defensive radar systems indicates that the generals envision both defensive and offensive capabilities.

North Korea’s military buildup is often viewed primarily as a security threat to Northeast Asia. But its burgeoning relationship with Burma is a reminder of how easily one rogue regime can empower others. Burma’s burning ambition to acquire modern missile technology, if left unchecked, could pose a dangerous destabilizing threat to regional stability.

Mr. Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Chiang Mai-based Irrawaddy magazine.

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