If Burmese president Thein Sein is to be believed, allegations of a nuclear relationship with North Korea are “unfounded”. He made the statement in Singapore on 30 January — and it is noteworthy that he actually found it necessary to make such assurances. That issue was high on the agenda when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma last December and, as the dust settles on the seemingly confusing political and diplomatic scene in Burma, it is becoming increasingly clear that the absence of human rights and democracy is not Washington’s concern.
Naypyidaw’s close relationship with Beijing, which, over the past two decades has included massive deliveries of Chinese arms to Burma and other military cooperation, certainly is. Even more alarming is the presence of North Korean technicians in the country, and frequent arrivals of North Korean ships Burmese ports over the past five years or so.
But Thein Sein is dodging the issue. Although there are suspicions to that effect, no one has actually claimed that Burma has a nuclear relationship with North Korea. The North Koreans are known to have been involved in the construction of underground bunkers and tunnels at various locations in Burma, and they were — and probably still are — assisting the Burmese in missile development at a top secret defence industry complex at Minhla in Magwe division, and possibly other sites as well.
When Burmese general Shwe Mann paid an official visit to North Korea in November 2008, he and his delegation signed a defence agreement with Pyongyang, and visited missile sites and inspected air defence radars. Today, Shwe Mann is the speaker of the Lower House of the new Burmese parliament, and as such was one of the dignitaries who received Clinton during her visit. On the way to and from North Korea in 2008, Shwe Mann’s delegation stopped in Beijing and Kunming, where they were received by high-ranking Chinese military officials, who were obviously aware of the cooperation between Burma and North Korea.
The last of several recorded attempts to ship weaponry from North Korea to Burma took place in May and June 2011, several months after Thein Sein became president and after government officials had claimed that there was no military cooperation with North Korea. On May 26 last year, The USS McCampbell caught up with M/V Light, a Burma-bound North Korean cargo vessel suspected of carrying missile parts and possibly other military equipment. The US destroyer approached the ship and asked to board, but the North Koreans refused. The first encounter took place in the sea south of Shanghai, and, a few days later closer to Singapore, the M/V Light stopped and then turned back to its homeport in North Korea — all the way tracked by US surveillance planes and satellites.
So can Thein Sein’s statement in Singapore really be taken at face value? It is important to remember that Burmese officials also announced in June 2010 that they were no longer sending military personnel to Russia for training. However, Burmese military personnel are still present at a number of military schools and training facilities in Russia, including the Omsk Armour Engineering Institute, the Air Force Engineering Academy in Moscow, the Nizhniy Novgorod Command Academy, and the Kazan Military Command Academy. Some are serving as cadets with the Russian Air Force.
The choice of Singapore for Thein Sein to make his announcement this week was also peculiar. For years, Singapore has been a transshipment point for military-related equipment destined for Burma. In April 2008, Japan’s public broadcaster NHK reported that North Korea had been selling multiple rocket launchers to Burma with a range of about 65 kilometres. The report said that “full-scale” exports of the weapons had been handled by an unnamed Singapore trading company. Most North Korean ships on their way to Burma used to dock in Singapore, where the North Koreans maintain a string of front companies and do much of their overseas banking.
Singapore, on its part, paid for the construction of a firing range near Minhla, where heavy weapons, including artillery and rockets, are tested. Singapore, a small island country which does not have enough space for such testing, brings its weapons to the site, which is adjacent to Burma’s Defence Industry Complex 2, at Malun in Minhla township — and an even more secretive facility, Defence Industry Complex 10, at nearby Konegyi. Part of that facility is located underground, and North Korean tunneling experts are reported to have assisted the Burmese army in building these. North Korean technicians are also reportedly taking part in the production of missiles and missile components at Konegyi, which is believed to be the main site for missile research and development in Burma.
So the question remains, has all of this come to an end because Clinton visited Burma last year and Thein Sein made his statement in Singapore? That is hard to believe. Over the past few months, relations between the United States and Thein Sein’s government have no doubt undergone a remarkable transformation. But that strategic change didn’t happen overnight. As early as 2004, an important document was compiled by Lt. Col. Aung Kyaw Hla, a researcher at Burma’s Defence Services Academy. His 346-page classified thesis, titled “A Study of Myanmar-U.S. Relations,” outlined the policies which are now being implemented to improve relations with Washington and lessen dependence on Beijing. The establishment of a more acceptable regime than the old junta provided has made it easier for the Burmese military to launch its new policies, and to have those taken seriously by the international community.
As a result, relations with the United States are indeed improving, exactly along the lines suggested by Aung Kyaw Hla in 2004. While paying lip service to human rights and democracy, the United States primarily wants to lure Burma away from China and North Korea. And it is certain that many Burmese military officers feel uncomfortable with the heavy dependence on China — and do not want to end up in the same pariah category of nations as North Korea. On the other hand, however, it would be foolish for the Burmese military to put all their eggs in one basket — the American one — and completely sever ties with North Korea. No other country has been willing to share its missile technology with Burma, or to engage in barter trade to pay for such deliveries. Having unloaded their secret wares in Burmese ports, the North Korean ships have almost invariably carried rice as their return cargo. Any statements made by Burmese officials regarding the military’s cooperation with foreign partners should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt.