Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Tunnel vision

Myanmar and North Korea share a tunnel vision

By Bertil Lintner

Asia Times 19 July 2006

BANGKOK - Under perceived threats from the US, Myanmar and North Korea are strengthening their strategic ties in a military-to-military exchange that includes weapons sales, technology transfer and underground tunneling expertise. Myanmar's ruling State Peace and Development Council last year abruptly moved the country's capital to a secluded location near the mountainous town of Pyinmana, 400 kilometers north of Yangon, where the SPDC has built an entirely new city in the jungle. Ordinary citizens do not have the right to enter the new capital, Nay Pyi Daw, which is populated entirely by soldiers and government officials.

During the March 27 Armed Forces Day celebrations held there, civilian diplomats were barred from attending and only foreign defense attaches were invited. North Koreans, however, are allowed unfettered access to the secluded new capital. Last month, Asian intelligence agencies intercepted a message from Nay Pyi Daw confirming the arrival of a group of North Korean tunneling experts at the site. Nay Pyi Daw is in the foothills of Myanmar's eastern mountains, and it has long been suspected by Yangon-based diplomats that the most sensitive military installations in the new capital would be relocated underground.

The SPDC's apparent fear of a preemptive US invasion or being the target of US air strikes was seen as a major motivation behind the junta's decision to move the capital to what they perceive to be a safer mountainous location. The administration of US President George W Bush has publicly lumped Myanmar with what it considers rogue regimes, and US officials have recently referred to Myanmar as an "outpost of tyranny". That perceived threat has drawn Myanmar and North Korea closer together in recent months. One key component of those growing strategic ties is North Korea's expertise in tunneling. Pyongyang is known to have dug extensive tunnels under the demarcation line with South Korea as part of contingency invasion plans.

Most of Pyongyang's own defense industries, including its chemical- and biological-weapons programs, and many other military installations are underground. This includes known factories at Ganggye and Sakchu, where thousands of technicians and workers labor in a maze of tunnels dug into and under mountains. The United States suspects there could be hundreds of underground military-oriented sites scattered across North Korea. Curious connectionMyanmar's curious North Korean connection has been the subject of much strategic speculation ever since it was first disclosed in the Far Eastern Economic Review in 2003.

Preliminary reports were met with skepticism because Myanmar (then known as Burma) had severed diplomatic relations with North Korea in 1983 after three secret agents planted a bomb at Yangon's Martyrs' Mausoleum and killed 18 visiting South Korean officials, including then-deputy prime minister So Suk-chun and three other government ministers. One of the North Korean agents, Kim Chi-o, was killed by Burmese security forces in the ensuing gun battle, while the others, Zin Mo and Kang Min-chul, were captured. Two years later, Zin, a North Korean army major, was hanged at Insein jail on the outskirts of the then-capital Rangoon (Yangon), while Kang was spared because he cooperated with the prosecution. Kang still languishes in Insein, but is reported to be staying in the so-called "Villa Wing" - a small private house with a tiny garden surrounded by high barbed-wire fences.

Reports about renewed ties between the two pariah nations gradually began to emerge - and it seems that Kang, unwittingly, was the reason the relationship was restored. In the early 1990s, secret meetings were held in Bangkok between North Korea's and Myanmar's ambassadors to Thailand. Pyongyang negotiated for Myanmar to extradite Kang, presumably because it wanted to punish him for betraying the "fatherland". But the two sides soon discovered that they actually had much more in common than their unfortunate history. Both authoritarian countries were coming under unprecedented international condemnation, especially by the US. Moreover, Myanmar needed more military hardware to battle ethnic insurgent groups and North Korea was willing to accept barter deals for the armaments, an arrangement that suited the cash-strapped generals in Yangon.

The bilateral relationship has reportedly intensified in recent years as both countries come under heavy US pressure. "They have both drawn their wagons into a circle ready to defend themselves," a Bangkok-based Western diplomat said in reference to Myanmar-North Korean ties, adding that Myanmar's generals "admire the North Koreans for standing up to the United States and wish they could do the same. But they haven't got the same bargaining power as the North Koreans."

Recent regional media reports about North Korea possibly providing nuclear know-how to Myanmar's generals are probably off the mark - at least for now. That said, North Korea has definitely been an important source of military hardware for Myanmar. According to Myanmar expert Andrew Selth, of Australia, the state in late 1998 purchased between 12 and 16 130-millimeter M-46 field guns from North Korea. "While based on a 1950s Russian design, these weapons were battle-tested and reliable," Selth stated in "Myanmar's North Korean Gambit: A Challenge to Regional Security?" - a working paper he published with the Australian National University in 2004. "They significantly increased Myanmar's long-range artillery capabilities, which were then very weak."

Secret visits. According to South Korean intelligence sources, a delegation from Myanmar made a secret visit to Pyongyang in November 2000, where the two sides held talks with high-ranking officials of North Korea's Ministry of the People's Armed Forces. In June 2001, a high-level North Korean delegation led by Vice Foreign Minister Park Kil-yon paid a return visit to Yangon, where it met Myanmar's Deputy Defense Minister Khin Maung Win and reportedly discussed defense-industry cooperation. The two sides reportedly did not discuss the reopening of official ties, still severed since the 1983 bombing incident. The cooperation has instead been kept low-key and purposefully not officially announced. "It's a marriage of convenience," said an Asian diplomat who is tracking the expanding ties. "They share common interests and a common mindset. But [Myanmar] doesn't want to be seen as having forgiven North Korea for the [Yangon] bombing, or to antagonize South Korea, which has become an important trade partner."

North Korea and Myanmar are apparently only pursuing conventional arms sales and technology transfers, rather than high-tech weapons sales such as long-range missiles. To date, the most advanced weaponry that North Korea has delivered, or may be considering delivering, are surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) for Myanmar's naval vessels. Myanmar currently has six Houxin guided-missile patrol boats, which were bought from China in the mid-1990s, according to Selth. Based at Myanmar's main naval facility at Monkey Point in Yangon, each vessel is armed with four C-801 "Eagle Strike" anti-ship cruise missiles. Selth speculates that similar SSMs will be mounted on the three new corvettes that have recently been built at Yangon's Sinmalaik shipyard, or on to the navy's four new Myanmar-class patrol boats, which have likewise recently been built in local shipyards.

In July 2003, between 15 and 20 North Korean technicians were seen by intelligence sources at Monkey Point and later at a secluded Defense Ministry guesthouse in a northern suburb of the then-capital. North Korean technicians have since been spotted near the central Myanmar town of Natmauk - which led to the assumption they were involved in Myanmar's nuclear program because of its proximity to the site where Russia had planned to build a nuclear research reactor starting in 2000. There is no evidence to indicate that Russia ever delivered the reactor, however. Myanmar's cash-strapped generals reportedly could not afford the ticket price, and unlike North Korea, Russia was not willing to accept the barter deal Myanmar had proposed. Nevertheless, several hundred Myanmar residents have gone to Russia for training in nuclear technology over the past five years, a strong suggestion that Myanmar has not entirely abandoned its nuclear ambitions.

The North Koreans now situated in central Myanmar are most likely there to help the SPDC protect its military hardware and other sensitive material from perceived US threats. In 2003, Myanmar's generals built a massive bunker near the central town of Taungdwingyi with North Korean assistance. The recent arrival of North Korean tunneling experts at Nay Pyi Daw lends credence to the suggestion that they are construction engineers with expertise in tunneling rather than nuclear physicists.

Still, the regional strategic implications of a North Korea-Myanmar defense relationship are similar. Rather than making Myanmar more secure and cash-strapped North Korea richer, news of the two sides growing strategic ties will likely lead to further international condemnation of both regimes. Furthermore, Myanmar is a member to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and fellow members such as Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia are not likely to accept passively any sort of North Korean military presence within the geographical bloc. There have recently been calls to expel Myanmar from ASEAN for its abysmal human-rights record and lack of progress toward democracy. By forging an alliance with Pyongyang, according to Selth, Myanmar's generals may in fact be encouraging the very development that it fears the most: active outside intervention in what they consider to be their "internal affairs".

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan. He has also written many books on Myanmar politics and culture and is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.

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