Can Myanmar Wean Itself Off North Korea?

Can Myanmar Wean Itself Off North Korea?
photo credit: REUTERS/Aly Song/達志影像

What you need to know

North Korea remains a stable source of materiel and military expertise for Myanmar.

Washington has threatened the re-imposition of sanctions if Naypyidaw does not end military relations once and for all.

The growing pressure on the international community to adhere to and enforce UN-mandated sanctions on Pyongyang has once again revealed the persistence of clandestine military ties between Myanmar and North Korea.

Relations between the two resumed in the 1990s after nearly a decade of estrangement following North Korea’s 1983 attempted assassination of the South Korean president in Myanmar’s then-capital Yangon. This rapprochement was a pragmatic one, as both states faced similar geopolitical positions. They were pariahs that had become increasingly isolated and sanctioned, they were fearful of U.S. regime change proclivities and they were searching for new partners to escape over-reliance on China. An extensive but discrete relationship emerged over the next two decades as Myanmar exported rice, timber and rubber in exchange for North Korean arms, missile technology and tunneling support to construct underground facilities.

This emerging "marriage of convenience" reached its zenith with the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations in 2007 as well as a high profile visit by then lieutenant general Thura Shwe Mann (the third-highest ranking member of the junta at the time) to North Korea in 2008. The United States classified Myanmar–North Korea ties as a threat to the region following speculation (but never decisive evidence) that Pyongyang supported a nuclear weapons program in Myanmar. Rather than continue existing policy to isolate and sanction, the Obama administration enacted the "pragmatic engagement" strategy with Myanmar (a strategy that promised U.S. normalization of relations if Myanmar continued to democratize). The junta’s transition towards a "disciplined democracy" was motivated in part by the desire to break their dependence on China by diversifying Myanmar’s foreign relations.

Despite Myanmar’s transition to a quasi-civilian government and despite its ameliorating relations with the international community, military ties with North Korea were maintained. This was indicated by the 2013 U.S. sanctioning of Lieutenant General Thein Htay for conducting arms sales with North Korea, by the allegations that prominent businessmen Tay Za facilitated illegal financial transactions with Pyongyang and by reports of North Korean technicians at suspected missile factories in Myanmar.

Beginning in 2016, a number of decisions by both the outgoing Thein Sein administration and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government indicated that Myanmar may have finally turned its back on North Korea. Myanmar’s government has condemned North Korean nuclear and missile tests. It expelled two North Korean diplomats accused of involvement in arms sales and other sanctioned activities. In October, Naypyidaw [Myanmar's capital] submitted its first official report of compliance with UN sanctions against Pyongyang.

These efforts are heavily influenced by growing U.S. pressure on Myanmar: Washington has threatened the re-imposition of sanctions if Naypyidaw does not end military relations once and for all.

The re-sanctioning of the Directorate of Defense Industries (the military's procurement company) in March 2017 and reports of North Korean instructors at military academies hints at continued military ties, though to what extent is unknown. Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs insists that they have only ‘normal’ diplomatic relations with North Korea, although they do acknowledge that "vestiges" remain from the previous relationship.

This appears to suggest that the real issue is not the NLD government’s reluctance to terminate such a state of affairs. The real issue is that the decision lies with the military.

Much like the situation that faced her predecessor Thein Sein, it is unclear how much Aung San Suu Kyi really knows about (let alone has the capacity to influence) the military’s activities.

In constructing the current political system, the military ensured that they remain a powerful and autonomous agent – regardless of the ruling party – by keeping security portfolios under their complete and exclusive purview. Much like the situation that faced her predecessor Thein Sein, it is unclear how much Aung San Suu Kyi really knows about (let alone has the capacity to influence) the military’s activities.

While the NLD government does have some leverage in rolling back relations (such as in its capacity to expel North Korea’s diplomats), Aung San Suu Kyi must balance international pressure to isolate Pyongyang against the NLD’s functional relations with the military. Extinguishing military relations with North Korea may become a new dividing line between the civilian government and those in uniform, so Aung San Suu Kyi will most likely tread carefully to avoid direct confrontation with the military (much like in the ongoing Rohingya crisis). Any attempt to terminate the relationship may be seen as an unacceptable intrusion into the military’s realm of exclusive control.

The military has carefully orchestrated and implemented the current political system over the past 15 years and are thus unlikely to overthrow it directly. But if the NLD government threatens the military’s core interests, the military may maneuver their allies to power in the upcoming 2019 elections.

Military ties with North Korea serve a number of purposes for the military. North Korea provided military hardware and expertise and may continue to do so while Western sanctions on military sales to Myanmar remain. There may also be a number of personal relationships between both militaries. These ties reflect the larger issue of the military’s resolute desire to maintain complete institutional authority and autonomy against any civilian oversight or influence.

While the extent of and exact rationales behind the maintenance of military ties with North Korea remain unclear, it is one of a number of issues that reveal the reality of governance in Myanmar. Although the generals no longer rule Myanmar, they are still in complete control of their own destiny and relations, even if these undermine the larger interests of the state in its ongoing transition away from military rule.

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The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston