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Myanmar turns its back on North Korea

On Jan. 13, Myanmar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its "deep concern" over what it called the "hydrogen bomb test" by North Korea. It urged Pyongyang to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions to cease nuclear activities. This anodyne statement was generally ignored internationally, but it is important because it marks several milestones in recent Myanmar history. These include the apparent end to the country's long-standing fears of a U.S. invasion; the role of North Korea as a model for standing up to the U.S.; the halting of a modest resurgence of North Korean influence; the desire to improve relations with the U.S.; and continuing close Chinese ties.

     It was apparent that the policies of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations pushing for "regime change" produced existential fears among Myanmar's leaders that the U.S. might invade the country to accomplish that goal. As evidence, Myanmar's then-powerful Military Intelligence unit pointed to repeated U.S. actions to accomplish the same goal in other states through invasion and subversion. It was perhaps felt that North Korea offered a lesson on how to prevent such an outcome by developing a nuclear weapons program. This analysis was inaccurate and simplistic, given that South Korea -- and by implication, the U.S. -- was already held hostage by massive North Korean artillery batteries along the demilitarized zone, thus rendering Pyongyang's nuclear weapons irrelevant. But Myanmar's generals may have seen the argument as persuasive.

     Whoever made the decision -- and it could only have come from the top -- the result was that hundreds of Burmese were trained in various aspects of nuclear engineering in Russia, triggering widespread rumors that Myanmar's military leadership was developing a nuclear weapons program with secret uranium production sites. Some senior officers may have held such pro-nuclear views, perhaps including the country's authoritarian ruler Senior General Than Shwe, even though Myanmar for many years was a public advocate of a nuclear weapons-free Southeast Asia. But whatever the nuclear aspirations, they were not transformed into reality.

Fear and suspicion

No credible evidence has ever emerged proving that Myanmar's nuclear ambitions were anywhere near fruition. But the paranoia of the generals died hard. When Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, killing an estimated 138,000 people, the junta refused to allow the U.S. to directly deliver relief supplies for fear that this could be the first step in Washington's regime change plan.

     These concerns have now been put to rest with the liberal Obama policy toward the Thein Sein government following its numerous political and economic reforms. The South Koreans had also trained some dozens of Burmese in aspects of nuclear management, but this is most likely because Seoul thought that one day it might secure a contract to construct a nuclear power plant in Myanmar, as it had hoped to do in Indonesia.

     Myanmar has apparently also taken seriously the West's concerns that its relations with North Korea would violate U.N. and U.S. sanctions against Pyongyang, which are in fact less onerous than those that had been imposed by the U.S. on Myanmar. The nadir of Myanmar's relations with North Korea followed Pyongyang's attempted assassination of South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan in 1983, which killed 17 of his senior officials and narrowly missed him. General Ne Win, Myanmar's then dictator, derecognized North Korea and relations floundered until South Korea, as part of its "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation with Pyongyang in the late 1990s, officially noted it would favor Myanmar's re-recognition of North Korea, which was happening in any case.

     Lt. General Shwe Mann, then Myanmar's military chief of the general staff (and now outgoing parliamentary speaker), paid a secret visit to North Korea in November 2008, inspected some military sites, and signed a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation. But as relations with the U.S. improved and invasion fears receded, Myanmar began to reduce weapons purchases from North Korea -- which was a key condition for better diplomatic ties with Washington and the lifting of extensive U.S. legislative and executive branch sanctions against the country.

     Some ships, possibly containing weapons sold or donated by North Korea, were turned back from Myanmar, including one reported incident in 2011 in which a U.S. warship stopped a North Korean vessel allegedly carrying missiles. Although Myanmar is said to be "winding down" its North Korean military connections, the U.S. imposition last November of further sanctions against two North Koreans in Myanmar, including the ambassador, may indicate that the U.S. still is concerned that something is afoot.

     The Myanmar statement on the nuclear test, however, has no doubt caused a considerable chill in Myanmar-North Korean relations. It also reaffirms Myanmar's intent to pursue good relations with the U.S., and no doubt this will be used to demonstrate to U.S. lawmakers as well as the international community that Myanmar has a responsible government. The announcement may also have been made with an eye toward China, which has criticized the most recent as well as earlier North Korean tests. So the statement can in no way be interpreted as hostile to Chinese interests in Myanmar. In some sense, it is a good example of Burmese traditional "neutralism" brought into the modern era.

     Foreign observers may wonder whether this statement was solely a product of the outgoing Thein Sein government, whether former dictator Than Shwe might have been consulted, and whether incoming leader Aung San Suu Kyi was informally advised or participated in the decision to issue the statement. Although it is difficult to draw a definitive conclusion, it would appear that Suu Kyi would have approved of the foreign ministry statement, which reinforces the kind of balanced foreign policy position her incoming government may pursue - particularly following her trip to China last June.

     But questions remain as to how far Myanmar will go in reducing its ties with North Korea. How much Thein Sein is in control of the military at all levels is uncertain, while the relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and the armed forces, or Tatmadaw, is another unknown factor. These are important questions since even with the recently diminished Myanmar-North Korean military and economic ties, the Tatmadaw may not want to sever all such relationships.

David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus, Georgetown University, and visiting scholar, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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