10 questions for MyanmarWASHINGTON, D.C. - As President Park Geun-hye travels across Europe, making the rounds of western leaders, ensuring a continued, strong and unified stance on North Korea was no doubt much on her agenda. The unpredictable North Korean state remains, after all, very much a wild card in Asia’s economic progress.
Yet, with investments by Korean companies - and their U.S., Japanese and European counterparts - in the once pariah state of Myanmar, or Burma, on the rise, another issue of great interest to the Blue House should be the extent of Myanmar’s military relations with North Korea. Indeed, it is worth asking questions about how much has really changed since the days of military rule in Myanmar.
Even as progress continues on a range of political and economic fronts, the latest news reports from Myanmar make it clear that significant human rights concerns remain across many of the states that make up this troubled union. Recent military activities in Burma’s southern Kachin State have displaced thousands of villagers, and flare-ups in sectarian violence just weeks ago in Rakhine State have left numerous people dead not far from one of the nation’s top beach destinations.
Understandably, many of the civil society organizations and nations who once pushed for sanctions on Myanmar continue to press for concrete reforms on a number of human rights issues. Less attention, though, has been given by policy makers to the issue of Myanmar’s past and present military relationship with North Korea. That should change. The international community should seek greater transparency on and disclosure of Myanmar’s nuclear, biological, chemical and missile programs with that country.
In a recent speech before the Heritage Foundation here in Washington, Keith Luse, a respected former senior U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member, called for greater transparency in Myanmar’s dealings with North Korea. In expressing his personal opinion, he also posed a number of questions that are well worth repeating and that Korea’s policy makers should also seek answers to. Here is a top 10 list:
1. What is the complete list of the multiple military and other projects where North Korean technicians and officials have been present or working inside Myanmar during the last 13 years?
2. Which of the projects or facilities, where North Koreans have been or are present, have or had a role in the development of Myanmar’s missile program, nuclear program or both?
3. What has been the role of North Korean trading companies in the development of Myanmar’s nuclear and missile programs? These same companies have reportedly assisted Syria with the development of its nuclear program.
4. To what degree has China’s complicity with the major expansion of the North Korea-Myanmar military relationship been raised with the Chinese by the United States, the European Union and others in the international community? In recent years, North Korean technicians and workers have entered Myanmar via Chinese air flights originating in China, according to Luse, and a considerable amount of military equipment and weaponry supplied to Myanmar by North Korea has entered Burma via overland transit through China.
5. What has been or is China’s direct role, officially and unofficially, in the development of Burma’s nuclear and missile programs? North Korean state trading companies’ Chinese partners may well play a role in assisting Myanmar’s nuclear and missile programs. In contrast, Luse notes, Russia has been transparent in reporting much of its role in the development of Myanmar’s nuclear program.
6. What is the total list of countries that have, knowingly or unknowingly, assisted Myanmar with development of its nuclear or missile programs? It will be interesting to see if dual-use technology from South Korean companies has put South Korea unwittingly onto this list.
7. To what degree has North Korea’s aiding and expanding Myanmar’s military capabilities been raised with North Korea by the United States, the EU and others in the international community?
8. What is the full inventory of military equipment and weapons, whether submarines or defense radar systems, provided or planned on being provided by North Korea to Myanmar?
9. Has the presence of multiple North Korean trading companies within Myanmar established another front and route for North Korea’s global proliferation capabilities?
10. And critically, amid growing engagement with much of the world, why are Myanmar’s leaders waffling on terminating, and making transparent and clear such termination of, the military relationship with North Korea?
Perhaps, Luse states, Myanmar’s leaders now believe that “time is on their side” - that the international community will swallow concerns and put aside any questions about the North Korea military connection given their eagerness to offset China’s business and development influence within Myanmar.
Recent history has shown that the United States and indeed the UN have failed in stopping North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and missile capabilities. Let us hope that nascent political and economic reforms in Myanmar do not likewise blind the international community of the need to bring accountability and transparency to any North Korean military dealings in and with Myanmar.
Understandably, businesses, development bankers and aid agencies, whether Korean, European or American, are eager to join what may well be a mad rush into Myanmar in their efforts to gain competitive advantage. Yet, any such effort that requires looking the other way on human rights violations or sweeping under the carpet any North Korea-Myanmar dealings is neither in the interest of the international community nor of the people of Myanmar in the long-term.
With Myanmar scheduled to take over the rotating leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) next year, the time is now to ask - and have answered - some critical questions of Myanmar’s leaders as the world increasingly engages with that nation. Let’s begin with Luse’s list of 10.
*The author served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (2007-10) and is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.
By Curtis S. Chin