Could US reset sanctions on Myanmar over North Korea?

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Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of the Myanmar armed forces, salutes during a ceremony to mark the 71st Armed Forces Day in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw on March 27, 2016. Photo: AFP/Aung Htet

If Kyaw Zeya, Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs permanent secretary, is to be believed, then strategic ties between his country and North Korea are completely severed after years of robust cooperation under military rule.

The Myanmar official made the claim this week during the visit of US envoy Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special North Korea representative, saying that Naypyitaw maintains only “normal relations” with Pyongyang and “definitely not” military-to-military relations.

Myanmar’s past close ties with North Korea have included arms sales, missile development and the construction of secretive underground defense facilities. Former US President Barack Obama’s decision to engage, not isolate, Myanmar, part of his “pivot” towards Asia policy, was predicated on its previous military-backed regime cutting all military links to Pyongyang.

Now, as US President Donald Trump puts top priority on confronting and isolating North Korea, including via pressure on countries that trade with the United Nations-sanctioned regime, it’s increasingly important in Washington that Myanmar upholds that vow.

Yun’s visit to Naypyitaw, however, has raised questions about how much Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government actually knows about the autonomous military’s often secretive activities and whether the US would consider re-imposing recently lifted sanctions on the country for failing to fully cut ties to North Korea.

Yun flew to Naypyidaw for meetings after attending a conference in Singapore focused on tensions on the Korean peninsula and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The top-ranking diplomat notably did not visit any other countries in the region during his trip.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun (R) answers questions from reporters following meeting with Japan and South Korea chief nuclear negotiators to talk about North Korean issues at the Iikura guest house in Tokyo, Japan April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Yamanaka/Pool

US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun (R). Photo: Reuters/Toru Yamanaka

It’s unclear if Yun won the assurances he sought in assisting to further isolate North Korea, which demonstrated the capacity to hit US territory after a July 4 missile test. Military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was quoted saying after his meeting with Yun that Myanmar only had “friend countries”, not enemies, and desired to have relations with militaries across the world.

When North Korea lost important customers for its military hardware in countries such as Pakistan, Libya and Syria, relations with Myanmar became increasingly important to Pyongyang. The relationship, which began in utmost secrecy in the mid-1990s, was cemented when Myanmar General Shwe Mann paid an official visit to North Korea in November 2008.

On that tour, Shwe Mann and his military delegation signed a defense agreement with Pyongyang and visited missile sites and inspected air defense radars. That bilateral pact is widely viewed by regional security analysts as the main reason Obama decided to shelve sanctions and bring Myanmar in from the cold, though Washington has focused on the democracy and rights promotion angle of the policy shift.

The emergence of a North Korean strategic ally in the middle of South and Southeast Asia was a strategic nightmare for Washington. The policy shift appeared to have paid off when Thein Sein, who had become Myanmar’s new president in March 2011, said in Singapore the following year that allegations of a nuclear relationship with North Korea were “unfounded.”

A guards of honour stand during during an event marking the 70th anniversary of Martyrs' Day at the Martyrs' Mausoleum dedicated to the fallen independence heroes in Yangon, Myanmar July 19, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

A guards of honor stand during an event marking the 70th anniversary of Martyrs’ Day at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum dedicated to the fallen independence heroes in Yangon, Myanmar July 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

The former military general, however, was dodging the issue. Although there were suspicions of bilateral nuclear engagement linked to Myanmar’s known desire to build a nuclear energy reactor, no credible source has ever claimed that Myanmar actually developed a nuclear relationship with North Korea. Russia’s plans to help Myanmar build a reactor in the early 2000’s were scrapped due to financial issues.

However, North Korea is known to have been involved in the sale of 130mm M-46 field artillery and a large quantity of 240mm truck-mounted multiple rocket-launchers to Myanmar. Pyongyang was also instrumental in the construction of extensive underground bunkers, tunnels and secretive facilities at locations across the country, including around the new capital of Naypyitaw.

According to a Myanmar military source who requested strict confidentiality, North Korean instructors based at the defense services’ educational institutes in Pyin Oo Lwin northeast of Mandalay have recently taught computerized fire control systems for battleships.

More alarmingly, Pyongyang has – and most probably still is, according to Asian and Western security sources – assisted the Myanmar military in missile development at a top-secret defense industry complex near Minhla in the central Magway Region and likely at other secretive sites as well.

According to well-placed Asian and Western security sources who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity, the Myanmar Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI), an entity headed by General Thein Htay, is still engaged in military business with North Korea in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (L) talks with Border Affairs Minister, Major General Thein Htay (R) as they attend the Economic Development Work shop held in Naypyidaw at the Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyidaw on August 20, 2011. Myanmar's democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi on Saturday said she was "encouraged" by her first meeting with the country's new nominally civilian president. In her first comments on Friday's discussions with President Thein Sein, a former general, the Nobel laureate indicated that the one hour meeting in the capital Naypyidaw had gone well. AFP PHOTO/Soe Than WIN / AFP PHOTO / Soe Than WIN

Then Border Affairs Minister Major General Thein Htay (R) with Aung San Suu Kyi in a 2011 file photo. Photo: AFP/Soe Than Win

Kyaw Zeya told Reuters ahead of Yun’s visit that Myanmar was abiding by UN resolutions imposed on North Korea’s proliferation activities.

“Myanmar is paying millions of dollars to North Korea as part of this weapons cooperation,” one source said. In late 2016, Kim Chol-nam, a North Korean official, was appointed Myanmar representative for the Korea Mining Development Corporation (Komid), a cover for Pyongyang’s weapons and missile technology exports, the same source said.

Komid was sanctioned by the UN in 2009, while the US reinforced its sanctions against the corporation in 2015. In March this year, the US Treasury Department imposed new sanctions against DDI under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act Sanctions.

DDI was previously sanctioned for materially assisting North Korea, but those measures were lifted in 2012 as part of Obama’s engagement initiative that aimed to reward the country’s democratic progress.

Thein Htay, who was targeted with sanctions by the US Treasury Department in July 2013 for his alleged involvement in the import of North Korean armaments, was taken off the sanctions list when Obama lifted US sanctions on Myanmar in October 2016.

To hide ongoing relations with North Korea from the rest of the world – and apparently also Myanmar’s elected civilian government – top level military officials have held secret meetings with Komid representatives.

Although the continued cooperation between Myanmar and North Korea has been approved by senior level military officials, the exact nature of current relations is known only among an inner circle of trusted top-ranking officers, the sources said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, (L) receives a souvenir from Myanmarís army commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, (R) during a meeting in Naypyidaw on May 22, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Aung Shine Oo

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry, (L) receives a souvenir from Myanmar’s army commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, (R) during a meeting in Naypyidaw on May 22, 2016. Photo: AFP/Aung Shine Oo

However, it was clear among defense officials in Washington that Thein Sein’s pledge of severed North Korean ties were disingenuous from the start.

In mid-2011, several months after Thein Sein assumed the presidency and around the time he made his first denials about the relationship, the USS Campbell caught up with M/V Light, a Myanmar-bound North Korean cargo vessel suspected of carrying missile parts and possibly other military equipment.

The US navy forced the ship to return to North Korea before it could offload its lethal cargo.

At about the same time, Glocom, a Malaysia-based North Korean front company, sold battlefield radio equipment to Myanmar. Glocom is controlled by the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a North Korean intelligence outfit tasked with overseas operations and weapons procurement, according to a United Nations report on Pyongyang’s weapons programs.

Then, only days after Myanmar’s historic election on November 8, 2015, the US Treasury sanctioned North Korea’s ambassador to Myanmar, Kim Sok-chol, for his role as a “facilitator” for Komid’s weapons business.

The US announcement did not mention Myanmar as the target of his proliferation activities or a recipient of Komid sales, but the connection was obvious to strategic analysts tracking developments.

The launch of four ballistic missiles by the North Korean regime has brought international denunciation, and a call by the US and Japan for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Photo: AFP/KCNA VIA KNS

The launch of four ballistic missiles in North Korea. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

Washington probably hoped that Myanmar’s new civilian government would pay stronger heed to its North Korean proliferation concerns.

Acknowledging the dual power centers in Myanmar’s current political configuration, Yun met Myanmar’s de facto head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as military leader Min Aung Hlaing.

The problem for the US is that Myanmar’s civilian government has no say in defense-related matters, and would likely not have knowledge about the military’s secret dealings with North Korea.

Judging by his non-committal comments about having all friends and no enemies in the wake of Yun’s visit, the senior general is no doubt aware of and likely driving the secretive relationship.

The ball is now in Washington’s court about how to respond, including the possibility of re-imposing the punitive economic sanctions Obama’s government lifted.

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