Part of North Korea's missile arsenal. Photo:  AFP/North Korean Central News Agency
Part of North Korea's missile arsenal. Photo: AFP / North Korean Central News Agency

If Hau Do Suan, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations’ headquarters in New York, is to be believed, his country has “no ongoing relationship whatsoever with North Korea” and is abiding by UN Security Council resolutions imposed against the isolated regime’s nuclear and missile programs.

His denial came after reports of a leaked UN confidential report said that North Korea had earned US$200 million in 2017 from exports that violated various UN-imposed sanctions. The sanctions-busting exports included coal, iron, lead, textiles, seafood and ballistic missiles or missile technology to Myanmar and Syria.

The revelations of Myanmar’s continued missile-related imports from North Korea show that the two sides’ military relations are alive and well despite Naypyitaw’s repeated claims that they have been severed. They also underscore that Myanmar’s autonomous and powerful military, and not the civilian elected government, continues to dominate with secrecy all matters related to national defense.

The UN report’s allegations will no doubt put more international pressure on Myanmar, which already faces tough scrutiny and potential new punitive measures for alleged abuses perpetrated by security forces in the Rohingya refugee crisis.

They may also give US President Donald Trump ammunition to reverse the engagement policies pursued by his predecessor Barack Obama, which with the recently revelations appear to have failed in cutting Myanmar’s strategic ties to North Korea.

That relationship was a major reason why the United States in 2011 decided to shift its policy towards Myanmar from sanctions-imposed isolation to diplomatic engagement with the then ruling military-backed regime.

Then US President Barack Obama extends his hand to shake with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein (R) in Yangon on November 19, 2012. Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad

“It was believed that sanctions had has no effect other than pushing Myanmar into the hands of the Chinese, which was worrying enough. But it was Myanmar’s military relationship with North Korea that tipped the balance. Something has to be done about it,” said a Western strategic analyst based in Southeast Asia.

The issue was high on the agenda when then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Myanmar in late November 2011, the first visit in decades by a high-ranking US government official.

By then, it was known that North Korean technicians had been involved in the construction of underground bunkers and tunnels at various locations in Myanmar – and that they were still assisting the Myanmar military in missile development at a top secret defense industry complex near Minhla in Magwe Region and possibly other sites as well.

Intelligence sources in the region had for several years recorded frequent arrivals of North Korean ships at Myanmar ports. The ships carried what was usually described as “construction material” to Myanmar and rice back to North Korea, indicating a barter arrangement.

At that time, sanctions made it almost impossible for Myanmar to pay for imports through international monetary institutions, which is still the case for North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic Hwasong-12 missile in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

The North Koreans needed food and the Myanmar military as always was looking for more powerful weapons. Myanmar bought – or bartered – artillery pieces and truck-mounted 240mm Multiple Launch Rockets Systems, or MLRSs, from North Korea in early 2008.

As for missiles, North Korea rarely exports ready-made weaponry, but rather prefers to sell missile technology and spare parts. The deal with Myanmar was meant for the production of a basic Scud-type missile akin to North Korea’s Hwasong 5 or Hwasong 6 with a range of 320-500 kilometers.

Those deals capped a warming trend after over a decade of cool ties. Myanmar severed all diplomatic and trade relations with Pyongyang after a bombing orchestrated by North Korean agents in October 1983 that killed 21 people, including 17 visiting South Korean government officials, in the then capital of Yangon. Two captured North Korean agents were sentenced to death and one was hanged.

Ironically, the Yangon bombing became the catalyst for closer military cooperation between the two sides. In the mid-1990s, North Korea’s then ambassador in Bangkok, Ri Do-sop, was instructed by Pyongyang to contact his Myanmar counterpart in Bangkok to negotiate the repatriation of Captain Kang Min Chul, a demolitions expert involved in the attack, who was wanted for high treason in North Korea.

He was never extradited and remained in Yangon’s Insein Jail until he died there of liver cancer in 2008.

Aftermath of the October 9, 1983 bomb blast targeting then South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan’s entourage in Yangon. Photo: Chosun Ilbo via AFP/Kim Sang-Yeong 

But the two pariah countries found each other during those secret talks in Bangkok which resulted in a weapons-for-food barter arrangement. The first consignment of North Korean weapons arrived in Myanmar in late 1998 and consisted of at least twelve 130mm M-46 (Type 59) field guns.

In July 2003, the now defunct Hong Kong weekly Far Eastern Economic Review reported that between 15 and 20 North Korean technicians had been spotted at Monkey Point naval base near Yangon and at a Defense Ministry guest house in Yangon.

Monkey Point is one of the bases for the Myanmar Navy’s six Houxin guided missile patrol boats, which were purchased from China in the mid- 1990s. It was believed that the North Koreans were helping the Myanmar Navy equip those vessels with surface-to-surface missiles, or installing a similar missile system on the navy’s Myanmar Class coastal patrol boats, which were manufactured locally.

The next sighting of North Korean technicians in Myanmar was in November 2003, when representatives of the Daesong Economic Group – an enterprise under Bureau 39 of the ruling Korean Workers Party charged with earning foreign currency – arrived in Yangon.

At about the same time, Yangon-based diplomats reported that North Korean technicians were spotted unloading large crates of heavy construction equipment from trains at Myothit in central Myanmar. In June 2006, Asian intelligence agencies intercepted a message from the new administrative capital Naypyitaw confirming the arrival of a group of North Korean tunneling experts.

Foreign intelligence agencies suspected that the most sensitive military installations in the new capital, which was inaugurated in late 2005, would be located underground. One key component of the ties between Myanmar and North Korea was the latter’s expertise in tunneling.

Myanmar’s ministerial zone at the administrative capital Naypyitaw, July 2014. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Mohigan

Pyongyang is known to have dug extensive tunnels under the demarcation line with South Korea as part of contingency invasion plans. Many of North Korea’s defense industries are also located underground – as are several of the new defense factories that Myanmar has built over the past decade.

In April 2007, North Korea and Myanmar finally reestablished formal diplomatic relations. In November the following year, General Thura Shwe Mann, a leading member of the then ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), paid a secret visit to Pyongyang where he and his delegation signed a defense agreement with North Korea. They also visited missile sites and inspected air defense radars.

A report of the visit was leaked by a disgruntled government official, and even appeared – complete with photographs – on the Internet, causing huge embarrassment in Naypyitaw. After a general election held in November 2010, Shwe Mann became speaker of the lower house of the national parliament, a position he held until January 2016.

He now heads Aung San Suu Kyi’s government’s 35-member Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission, which reviews laws and assists parliamentary committees, while his two sons have become prominent businessmen.

The relationship between Myanmar and North Korea was supposed to have come to an end when Myanmar normalized relations with the West following the 2010 general election and the subsequent formation of a pseudo-civilian government headed by president Thein Sein, a retired army general who had previously served as prime minister during the final years of the SPDC’s rule.

But evidence of continued relations, including sightings of North Korean ships at Thilawa port near Yangon, persisted despite frequent official pledges to the contrary.

It became clear that those denials were false in July 2013 when the US Treasury Department sanctioned Lieutenant General Thein Htay, the head of Myanmar’s Directorate of Defense Industries, for his alleged involvement in the illicit trade of North Korean armaments to Myanmar.

Then opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (L) talks with then Border Affairs Minister Major General Thein Htay (R) on August 20, 2011. Photo: AFP/Soe Than Win 

The US Treasury Department prohibits any US person or entity from engaging in transactions with the senior soldier and stated it would freeze any assets he may hold in the US.

The US, which at the time was in the process of restoring relations with Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, added diplomatically that there was no evidence to suggest that the arms deals were still official Myanmar policy.

Local analysts remained skeptical, however, when KOMID, or the Korea Mining and Development Trading Corporation – a North Korean entity that is the main exporter of equipment related to ballistic missiles as well as conventional weapons – appointed an official identified as Kim Chol-nam as its new representative in Myanmar in late 2016.

North Korea’s presence in the old capital of Yangon is also evident, not least at the Pyongyang Koryo restaurant in the city’s Bahan township. It is part of a chain of North Korean eateries in the region, with similar establishments in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Jakarta, that earn badly needed foreign exchange for the cash-strapped and isolated regime.

The eateries are an important source of income, to be sure. But no matter what Myanmar diplomat Hau Do Suan says about the recent UN report, missile technology and armaments, not kimchi, are the main items on his country’s sanctions-busting import menu from North Korea.

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