Fri 27 Apr 2007
Filed under: International,News
Bangkok: United in their hostility toward America, two of the world’s most repressive nations – Myanmar and North Korea – restored diplomatic relations Thursday after more than two decades of estrangement.
Their diplomatic reunion, sealed during a North Korean visit to Myanmar that was so low-key that it seemed almost a secret mission, was far quieter than the countries’ rupture in 1983. That came a month after a powerful bomb, thought to have been set off by North Korean agents, exploded in the capital of the country then known as Burma.
The bomb narrowly missed the South Korean president, Chun Doo Hwan, who was making an official visit to the capital, Rangoon, now called Yangon. More than 20 people were killed, including several high-ranking South Korean officials, and at least twice that number of people were wounded in a blast that could be heard miles away.
But relations between the two nations have quietly been warming over recent years as both sought allies under pressure from the West.
”You can say it’s a case of outposts of tyranny getting together,” said Aung Naing Oo, an exile from Myanmar who is a political commentator here, using a phrase coined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of the United States in 2005. The other countries Rice described this way were Iran, Cuba, Zimbabwe and Belarus.
Both Myanmar and North Korea are subject to economic sanctions and harsh condemnation from Washington and both appear to consider themselves under military threat from the United States.
There is a difference, though. North Korea, with its nuclear weapons, really does face a potential military confrontation with the United States.
Similar fears among the generals who rule Myanmar are apparently one reason for their move last year to a remote new capital, Naypyidaw, which is part administrative center, part military base.
”I think we regard the threat to Burma as preposterous, as Americans,” said David Steinberg, a professor at Georgetown University who is an expert on Myanmar. ”But the Burmese take this seriously. There are groups inside Burma that would want this to happen.”
It is not clear that the new diplomatic ties will have much more than symbolic effect. Political analysts dismiss the notion put forward by some exiles that nuclear weaponry could be involved.
”There has been speculation about nuclear activity, but it’s been pooh-poohed by experts on the matter,” said Robert Taylor, a London-based consultant on Myanmar affairs.
Win Min, an exile from Myanmar who teaches political science at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, said, ”I doubt with their money and with their level of education – to get nuclear technology – I doubt it.”
North Korea does have conventional arms and military expertise to offer, and there are unconfirmed reports that, for several years, as relations warmed, North Korea has been supplying weapons.
Myanmar, for its part, can offer natural resources in the kind of barter arrangement it prefers, experts said.
”Myanmar likes trade relations with almost everybody,” Taylor said, relying primarily on China, India and Russia to neutralize sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe.
The junta has been reaching out to other countries that are shunned by the United States like Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.
”Myanmar is a source of cheap food,” Taylor said, despite the deep poverty of its own people. ”North Korea might be seeing an advantage in that.”
The agreement was signed without fanfare during a three-day visit to Myanmar by Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il of North Korea.
Myanmar’s deputy foreign minister, Kyaw Thu, made the announcement to reporters in Yangon and said it would be up to the North Koreans to decide whether to open a diplomatic mission in the new capital, about 320 kilometers, or 200 miles, to the north.
Other embassies have refused to move and remain in Yangon, an eight-hour drive away over bad roads.
South Korea also seems to have buried the past. It had already signaled that it had no objection to Myanmar’s resumption of ties with the North. On Wednesday the Reuters news agency quoted an official of the South Korean Foreign Ministry as saying Seoul respected Myanmar’s decision.
”We hope this restoration will lead to the opening of North Korea and hope it will contribute to peace and stability within your country,” the official was quoted as saying.
As it has expanded its foreign relations, Myanmar has pursued what it says is its march toward democracy, with plans to resume later this year – and perhaps finally complete – a slow-moving constitutional convention.
That is to be followed by an election that outside analysts say the generals will ensure they win, after a humiliating loss in 1990 in a parliamentary vote that they found necessary to annul.
That election was won by the National League for Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. Many of its members have since been imprisoned, and Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, where she has been for most of the past decade.
”They’ll have a referendum, they will win, and at some point in the future they’ll have an election, which they’ve got it made in because of the terms of their new constitution,” Steinberg said.