A Brief History of the North Korean-Myanmar Friendship

Image via Wikimedia and used under a Creative Commons license. 

By Maria Rosaria Coduti

“Dangerous bedfellows,” “rogue brothers in arms,” and “friends in need” are some of the expressions experts and journalists have used to describe North Korea-Myanmar [Burma] relations in the past.

In 2005, then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labeled Myanmar an “outpost of tyranny,” a feature that saw the country enter the club of the “pariah states” along with Cuba, Iran, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and North Korea.

However, just four years later, the newly elected Obama administration reviewed American policy toward Myanmar and shifted to one based on the pragmatic engagement of Naypyidaw, the country’s capital, which inaugurated a new era of the Southeast Asian country’s relations with the U.S. and with both Western and Asian actors as a consequence.

According to some political analysts, this new policy was either a tile of a broader U.S. rebalancing strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region, the so-called “pivot to Asia,” or a move in response to mounting international concerns about the nuclear aspirations of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the country’s ruling military junta—formerly known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)—that led the military coup in 1988.

Speculations that Myanmar was developing a secret nuclear program with the help of the North Koreans intensified in 2009 because of photographs showing underground tunnel constructions in Myanmar and reports affirming that Pyongyang was helping Naypyidaw build a nuclear reactor and plutonium reprocessing facilities.

Moreover, at the annual ASEAN summit that July, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that military cooperation between North Korea and Myanmar “would be destabilizing for the region” and “pose a direct threat to Burma’s neighbors.”

Before these allegations concerning the transfer of nuclear technologies from Pyongyang to Naypyidaw, the relations between these two “pariah states” had hardly been at the top of the agenda of the international community, but the two boast a partnership that dates back to the early 1960s.

Similar Paths

Myanmar, then called Burma, gained independence from the British in 1948, the same year the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was founded by Kim Il Sung. Since then, the two countries have followed different paths of development and state building, partially due to different internal and geographical characteristics.

The DPRK is ethnically homogeneous: its inhabitants speak the same language. From its early days the Kim regime began to exercise an extensive and penetrating control over the population through the creation of the suryong system, based on the idea of the supreme leader as the center of the sociopolitical organism, the latter’s “cerebral organ,” and juche ideology—whose main implication is the fulfillment of the country’s self-sufficiency in economy, political independence, and self-defense.

Moreover, the perception of being a country surrounded by major powers that do not trust it has led to the formation of a national identity based on threat. This system is still effective in North Korea, even if it has been adjusted to the changing internal and external conditions of the country—as the songun [military-first] policy of Kim Jong Il and the byungjin [parallel economic and nuclear development] policy of Kim Jong Un show.

In Myanmar, instead, the inability of the ruling Burman majority to integrate itself with, and accommodate the requests of, other ethnic groups and the constant instability of its border region has made the formation of a common identity in what is today the Republic of the Union of Myanmar difficult.

However, the Burman majority has come to develop one, based on nationalism and economic self-sufficiency. In this framework, state control has been weak and, even during the years of military rule, a certain degree of dissent has continued to be channeled through the activities of the civil society. Moreover, the political system has changed in Myanmar from a parliamentary one (1948-62), under the lead of Prime Minister U Nu, to military rule under Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) until 1988, when another military coup led to the formation of the SLORC/SPDC.

In March 2011, following the general election of 2010, a quasi-civilian government was installed under the presidency of Thein Sein. The political, economic, and social reforms that he implemented paved the way for the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Aung San Suu Kyi in the general election in 2015 that has, at least in theory, inaugurated a new democratic era in the country.

The Burmese domestic elites, conscious of the fact that their country is sandwiched between two giants—China and India—and mindful of the colonial period, distrust foreigners and their interests, particularly Westerners, and have realized that Myanmar has little leverage in influencing international relations. As a result, especially since 1962, they have focused on internal matters without enmeshing themselves with the external world.

These perceptions and characteristics of the internal dimension of Burma shaped the foreign policy of the country, which at the outbreak of the Cold War adopted a neutral and non-aligned foreign policy in order to preserve domestic order and stability, national unity, and the territorial integrity of the state.

This policy line resonated with that implemented by Pyongyang, aimed, too, at defending the autonomy and integrity of North Korea from attempts by its two major economic and political backers—Moscow and Beijing—to bring the small but strategic “satellite” under their control. Kim Il Sung was able to drive a wedge between the two and maximize the benefits, reassuring both of North Korea support.

During the 1960s, North Korea assumed the role of a “bastion of the revolution and liberator” in the eyes of the “third world” countries, with which it forged economic and political bonds: the Kim regime’s anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle became a model for the Burmese leadership. During the U Nu period, both Koreas maintained unofficial consulates in Rangoon (today called Yangon).

Image via Wikimedia and used under a Creative Commons license.

Close Ties

After the military takeover, General Ne Win formalized relations with both Seoul and Pyongyang, but relations with the latter “tended to be warmer” than those with the former. These relations further improved in 1977, when Ne Win paid an official visit to North Korea’s capital and the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) established fraternal links with the BSPP, which culminated in 1980 with the attendance of the Sixth Congress of the WPK by a BSPP delegation.

Maintaining cordial relations with North Korea was a priority for Burma, because it feared that Pyongyang could apply its policy of supporting revolutionary movements all over the world in favor of the Communist Party of Burma, too. However, this honeymoon ended abruptly in October 1983 following the bombing, in Rangoon, of a South Korea delegation by North Korean agents. After this, relations between Burma and the DPRK went into a deep freeze for a decade.

The brutal repression of the democratic protests of 8/8/88 in Myanmar, the first nuclear crisis in North Korea in 1993-94, and the changing international environment following the collapse of the Soviet Union created the conditions for a thaw in the relations of the two increasingly pariah states.

Both countries found themselves with failing economies and a new leadership eager to neutralize perceived threats, while both were under harsh international sanction regimes (but for different reasons) and isolated, and could count only on China for support.

It made sense that North Korea and Myanmar sought each other out in order to form a partnership of convenience—a barter agreement, according to which Myanmar exported rice, timber, and rubber in exchange for North Korean military equipment and technical assistance—beneficial for both. Furthermore, the junta in Naypyidaw admired the ability of its North Korean counterpart to preserve its existence through its nuclear capabilities and brinksmanship.

At the beginning of the 2000s, a willingness to restore high-level talks between the two surfaced after the ASEAN Regional Forum admitted its first North Korean representative. In 2007, diplomatic relations were officially resumed with the nomination of new ambassadors in both states’ capitals.

The trading relations and military cooperation were formalized the following year in Pyongyang with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding by Kim Jong Il and the Joint Chief of Staff of the Burmese Armed Forces, Shwe Mann.

The Pivot to Asia

But once again, domestic and external conditions in Myanmar determined a new course in the relations. As noted above, in 2009 the U.S. expressed concerns about nuclear cooperation between Naypyidaw and Pyongyang and operated a change of policy toward the former that was further accelerated in 2011, when the new President Thein Sein implemented the first steps of the Burmese internal transition towards a “disciplined flourishing democracy”: the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and a relaxation of press censorship and political opposition.

These events favored rapprochement between Myanmar and the U.S. but, as noted by David Steinberg, the key condition for this was the reduction of the weapons purchases from North Korea, which, in turn, led to the lifting of economic sanctions against Naypyidaw and the end of country’s international isolation.

These factors also allowed the country to implement a new “hedging strategy in search of a new age of non-alignment between China and the U.S.,” as brilliantly illustrated by Antonio Fiori and Andrea Passeri.

For the Burmese civilian leadership, it has become pivotal to assure it has severed ties with North Korea in order to obtain economic benefits not only from the U.S., but also from the European Union, South Korea, India, and Japan.

In 2012, Thein Sein promised to the President Lee Myung-bak, during the first visit of a South Korean president to Myanmar since 1983, that Myanmar would not buy any more weapons from North Korea.

However, the U.S. blacklisting in 2013 of Thein Htay, the Burmese Head of the Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI), for involvement in the illicit trade of North Korean arms, highlighted the continued cooperation between Myanmar and the DPRK.

When Secretary of State John Kerry had a diplomatic meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, less than two months after the civilian government led by the NLD took power in 2015, he still expressed longstanding concerns that Myanmar’s close relationship with North Korea could include the transfer of nuclear weapons technology.

For its part, after a visit to Pyongyang of a Foreign Ministry delegation in September of the same year, a Burmese President’s Office spokesman said that Myanmar continued to enjoy cordial relations with North Korea.

It is not possible to completely ascertain the current state of North Korea-Myanmar relations, but what seems sure is the fact that despite the bans imposed on Pyongyang by the United Nations Security Council on exports of military equipment, the Kim regime is earning badly needed foreign currency through this activity and, given the loss of customers in the Middle East, the powerful generals in Naypyidaw still represent a good “client” in Southeast Asia.

Maria Rosaria Coduti currently works as North Korea Analyst at NK News and Academic Tutor at the University of Bologna, where she received both a BA and MA, with honors, at the School of Political Science. Her research interests focus on domestic and foreign policy of the two Koreas and China, inter-Korean relations, nuclear and security issues in Northeast Asia, and cognitive foreign policy analysis and role theory.

This article was first published at NK News on May 9, 2017. Read the original article.