A recent NK News report stating that “Burma continues to enjoy a furtive defence relationship with North Korea by using front companies and false flags to ship military cargo from Pyongyang to Rangoon” raises serious questions about the presumed basis for the Obama administration’s whole engagement policy with Myanmar (Burma). This report points to an apparent violation of the pledge made by the Burmese president to then secretary of state Clinton back in December 2011. Clinton at that time told a press conference in the Burmese capital of Naypyitaw after her meeting with President Thein Sein and other key government officials: “We look to the government to fully implement UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, and we support the government’s stated determination to sever military ties with North Korea.” It appears, however, that the Burmese junta has backtracked on this promise to Secretary Clinton, if it indeed ever even intended to keep it the first place.
When Hillary Clinton became the first Secretary of State to visit Burma since John Foster Dulles in 1955, she was on a special mission. She was there to smooth out wrinkles and ensure that there were no glitches standing in the way for a historic presidential visit by Barack Obama. Myanmar, or Burma as Washington still preferred to call it, would serve as the showcase for the pledge to dictators made in President Obama’s first inaugural speech that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” As that pledge had not worked out well with Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, or North Korea, Burma became the essential poster boy for the Obama engagement policy.
Yet North Korea remained a potential glitch.
An August 2009 report in the Sydney Morning Herald had highlighted theresearch on the NK-Burmese relationship conducted by Australian National University (ANU) professor Desmond Ball and Thai-based journalist Phil Thornton. The pair, having conducted two years of interviews with defectors on the Thai-Burma border, raised the possibility of Pyongyang transferring nuclear technology to the Burmese junta. Secretary Clinton herself had given public recognition to these concerns by stating during a television interview in Bangkok in the summer of 2009 that “we worry about the transfer of nuclear technology and other dangerous weapons” from North Korea to Burma.
So when the Secretary of State arrived in Burma in November 2011 she had North Korea very much on her mind. During that historic visit, she extracted the promise from the Burmese leadership to cut military ties to Pyongyang. Partially based on this assurance, President Obama followed in November 2012, fresh upon his re-election victory, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the former pariah state. At the same time, the United States softened sanctions, removed a ban on most imports, and announced the resumption of U.S. aid programs. Some human-rights groups criticized these actions at the time as being “premature.” Reports of continued Burmese regime ties to Pyongyang will only serve to reinforce this scepticism.
Just prior to the presidential visit to Burma, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies told reporters in Beijing on October 22, 2012, that the United States believed that Myanmar was moving towards giving up its remaining military ties with North Korea, but recognized it would take time. “I think that Burma's on the right path,” the envoy stated, “that they have made a strategic decision to fundamentally alter their relationship with the DPRK and to ultimately end these relationships with North Korea.”
In February 2013, the Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, W. Patrick Murphy, told the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission that “Deeper engagement, however, will require a severing of military ties with North Korea and a firm commitment to democracy.” And on April 25, 2013, then acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs Joseph Yun stated before a Senate subcommittee that “We continue to ask the Burmese government to demonstrate concrete progress in achieving respect for human rights, national reconciliation, democratization, and an end of military ties to North Korea.” These official administration statements at least give the impression that NK-Burmese military ties may still exist, even after President Obama’s visit.
The NK News report, in fact, indicates that the NK-Burmese military relationship has continued on track for the past year since the Obama visit. It also reports that Naypyitaw expressed support as recently as June for Pyongyang in its continuing stalemate with Washington: “We extend full support and firm solidarity to the Korean people in their struggle for building a thriving nation and achieving the reunification of the country under the leadership of the dear respected Kim Jong Un,” Than Tun, the general director of the military-run firm, Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, said in a dispatch dated 23 July, according to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KNCA). The dispatch further noted, according to NK News, that “The US imperialists are now trying everything they can to lure Burma away from its alliance with North Korea. But the trade with North Korea is no doubt continuing.”
NK News also reported new guidelines for North Korean ships carrying arms to Burma to avoid interdiction under UN-imposed sanctions on NK arms trading: “North Korean ships have been told to be ‘more discreet’ and not fly their own flag when entering Burmese waters, since relations with the West began to warm in 2011. Cargo ships now use ‘flags of convenience’, usually from Central American countries, to conceal their passage to Burma.” The report also cites evidence of North Korean vessels disguised under Burmese flags shipping illicit materials into Rangoon, often in exchange for thousands of tons of rice. “Many of these transactions are reportedly handled through front companies registered in Singapore or Burma, ostensibly trading ‘cement’ or other commercial goods.”
This flurry of reports indicates continued military links between Pyongyang and Naypyitaw despite Burmese official assurances to the contrary. This question, then, is clear: has Naypyitaw crossed Washington’s defined red line of no further arms trade with Pyongyang as a necessary prerequisite for improved bilateral relations? Did Naypyitaw lie to Secretary Clinton back in 2011? If so, what is the appropriate response?
Dennis P. Halpin is a former Peace Corps volunteer in South Korea, former U.S. consul in Pusan, and former professional staff member, for more than twelve years, with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He is currently a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (Johns Hopkins University).