Saturday, June 19, 2010
The Burma-North Korea Axis
This is a sensitive moment in relations between the United States and the world’s most corrupt regime: the military junta that has plundered Burma for decades as if it were a private fiefdom.
The Obama administration has attempted to apply a strategy dubbed “pragmatic engagement.” As it works to rethink its position amid the present cacophony of foreign and domestic crises, there is a danger that Washington might give Burma short shrift and unwittingly soften its stance toward the country’s military leaders. It should be careful not do so. And it should take the junta’s nuclear-weapons ambitions seriously.
The regime in Burma has a history of deceiving American officials. I know; before defecting to the United States in 2005, I was a senior intelligence officer for the war office in Burma. I was also the deputy chief of mission at Burma’s embassy in Washington.
In the autumn of 2003, a senior staff member for a U.S. senator came twice to our embassy in Washington to call on Ambassador U Lin Myaing and me. At about the same time, officials from the U.S. State Department and the National Security Council also met in New York with U Tin Win, from the office of Burma’s prime minister, and Colonel Hla Min, the government’s spokesman.
The American officials were checking reports that Burma had secretly renewed ties with North Korea — one of the three pillars of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.”
Burma had severed ties with North Korea in 1983, after North Korean operatives attempted to assassinate South Korea’s president, Chun Doo Hwan, during a state visit to Rangoon. Chun was unhurt, but 17 senior South Korean officials — including the deputy prime minister and the foreign and commerce ministers — were killed.
The head of Burma’s junta, Senior General Than Shwe, instructed us to lie to the Americans. We did. We blamed Burma’s political opposition for the “rumors” that Rangoon had renewed ties with Pyongyang. The Americans wanted proof. Than Shwe then ordered Foreign Minister U Win Aung to send a letter denying the reports to Secretary of State Colin Powell. The British government knew the truth. London’s ambassador to Rangoon rightfully called U Win Aung a liar.
Why did Burma renew ties with North Korea? Regime preservation.
In the aftermath of the 1988 nationwide uprising in Burma, many foreign joint ventures for the production of conventional weapons were cancelled. Than Shwe began the secret re-engagement with North Korea in 1992, soon after he took control of Burma’s ruling clique.
He argued that Burma faced potential attack from the United States and India, which at the time was a champion of Burma’s democracy movement. He wanted a bigger army. He wanted more modern weapons. He even wanted nuclear arms. He cared not at all for the poverty of Burma’s people.
Than Shwe secretly made contact with Pyongyang. Posing as South Korean businessmen, North Korean weapons experts began arriving in Burma. I remember these visitors. They were given special treatment at the Rangoon airport. With a huge revenue bonanza from sales of natural gas to Thailand, Burma was soon able to pay the North Koreans cash for missile technology.
The generals thought that they could also obtain nuclear warheads and that, once these warheads were mounted on the missiles, the United States and other powerful countries would not dare to attack Burma and have much less leverage on the junta.
Than Shwe hid these links with North Korea as long as he could from Japan and South Korea, because he was working to lure Japanese and South Korean companies to invest more in efforts to plunder Burma’s natural resources. By 2006, the junta’s generals felt either desperate or confident enough to publicly resume diplomatic relations with North Korea.
Burma has worked for almost a decade to expand its production of missiles and chemical warheads. General Tin Aye — chairman of the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, the military’s business arm — is the top manager of ordinance production and main liaison with North Korea.
According to a secret report leaked last year, the regime’s No. 3 man, General Shwe Mann, also made a secret visit to Pyongyang in November 2008. He signed an agreement for military cooperation that would bring help from North Korea for constructing tunnels and caves for hiding missiles, aircraft, even ships.
That this information was leaked by Burmese military officials working on such sensitive activities shows both the degree of Than Shwe’s military megalomania and the existence of opposition within the regime itself.
The words “pragmatic engagement” should not become synonymous with any weakening of Washington’s firm opposition to Burma’s rulers.
The United States and other nations must continue to question the legitimacy of Than Shwe and the regime. They should not believe his promises to hold free and fair elections this year.
Only coordinated pressure from around the globe will be effective in dealing with this master of deceit.
Submitted by Aung Lynn Htut former senior intelligence officer in Burma’s Ministry of Defense. International Herald Tribune