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Dhaka Tribune

Is Myanmar looking to North Korea for arms support?

  • Myanmar junta battles rebels, North Korea faces food shortage
  • Pariah states seek closer cooperation
Update : 28 Sep 2023, 10:39 PM

Myanmar has expanded the remit of its ambassador to China to also cover North Korea, leading to concerns that the junta is attempting to broaden its international relations and circumvent international sanctions.

Reports on Radio Free Asia's Burmese-language output said Tin Maung Swe had been named envoy to Pyongyang on September 11, in addition to his role in Beijing. 

The announcement coincided with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's trip to Russia's far east for talks with President Vladimir Putin, during which the two leaders discussed building closer ties.

The US and South Korea have aired concerns that North Korea and Russia could be heading towards a weapons deal, with North Korean artillery shells and drones for use in Moscow's war against Ukraine provided in return for Russian missile and nuclear technology. 

Since taking power in a February 2021 coup, Myanmar's junta has been bogged down fighting armed resistance groups. Analysts said  North Korea could provide a source of artillery rounds and small arms ammunition to the junta in exchange for rice and other foodstuffs sorely needed in North Korea.

Russia has been one of the junta's main weapons suppliers, however, its war in Ukraine has put a strain on deliveries.  

"This makes Myanmar's military all the more interested in weapons cooperation with North Korea, while the Kim regime is willing to barter for food and raw materials to get around sanctions," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. 

"Both pariah regimes also crave diplomatic recognition to show their domestic audiences they are not completely isolated," he told DW.

Easley added that both regimes were under international sanctions, and looking to expand a circle of friendly states.

"Increasingly isolated under renewed economic sanctions, the military junta could rekindle relations with fellow pariah Pyongyang," he said. 

What could a partnership look like?

Stephen Nagy, a professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University, said it was "not surprising" that the isolated regimes were seeking out new allies. 

"North Korea is in desperate need of hard currency for its weapons programs but does not have much going for it other than selling munitions to some countries that are not able to source them from elsewhere," he said. 

Myanmar is likely to be able to provide some minerals, food, and hard currency, with small arms ammunition, and other military equipment, including drones, being sent in the other direction.

Transporting the items was likely to pose the biggest obstacle to any potential trade, Nagy said. However, financial exchanges could be carried out through difficult-to-trace cryptocurrencies, he added.

Although the two countries both have land borders with China, Nagy said that Beijing would be reluctant to get involved in any partnership. 

'"It is interesting that Myanmar has gone to North Korea for assistance and not China," he said. "I see China trying to position itself very carefully as Beijing fears secondary sanctions at a time when its domestic economy is already very weak."

History of Myanmar-North Korea relations

The potential new-found connection between North Korea and Myanmar belies a troubled bilateral history. 

On October 9, 1983, a bomb exploded at the Martyrs' mausoleum in Yangon shortly before the South Korean president, Chun Doo-hwan, was due to pay his respects at the site.

Although the president was delayed by traffic, several of his cabinet and their hosts were already at the mausoleum when the bomb detonated, killing 21 and wounding nearly 50 other people. 

Police quickly identified three North Korean military personnel as being behind the attack. One of the North Korean assailants was killed in the subsequent manhunt. Another was executed after refusing to confess or cooperate with the investigation.

The final attacker, Kang Min Chul, confessed to being behind the attack and being a North Korean agent. He was sentenced to life in prison and died in 2008.

Pyongyang has consistently denied ordering the assassination attempt on the South Korean leader.

Myanmar severed diplomatic relations immediately after the incident, although they were restored in 2007. Ties were once again cut under the civilian government of Myanmar's now-imprisoned democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to comply with international sanctions on North Korea. 

Kim builds his 'statesman' image

North Korean media has used the international spotlight on Kim's meeting with Putin to bolster the leader's image domestically.

State media reported that the visit "opened up a new chapter in DPRK-Russia relations with independence against imperialism as an ideological basis." 

Nagy suggested that a new friendship with Myanmar was also likely to be used to build the cult of personality of Kim as a great statesman. 

"It will give him greater legitimacy and help to prop up the regime at a time when it is really struggling as the economy tanks, it continues to feel the effects of being cut off from the rest of the world during the pandemic and pressure from international sanctions continues to bite," he said. "Even a small benefit can be a big help to Kim."

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