Tue 15 May 2012
Filed under: Inside Burma
Seoul—South Korean President Lee Myung-bak wrapped up a two-day trip to Myanmar on Tuesday by meeting with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and securing promises from the country’s leaders to release a North Korean defector and stop trading weapons with North Korea.Myanmar President Thein Sein confirmed during Mr. Lee’s visit that his country had bought weapons from North Korea in the past but said Myanmar never had nuclear cooperation with Pyongyang, according to the Associated Press.
Mr. Lee also visited the mausoleum of Ms. Suu Kyi’s father, which in 1983 became the site of a bombing and attempted assassination of the last South Korean president to visit Myanmar. The blast killed 17 South Koreans, including several cabinet members and lawmakers, who were waiting for President Chun Doo-hwan to arrive at the site.
In a news conference with Ms. Suu Kyi, Mr. Lee said he “commended efforts by the government to bring about democracy.”
Ms. Suu Kyi said the people of Myanmar want freedom, justice and prosperity. “Not any one but all of it together,” she said, according to South Korean media reports. “President Lee understands that prosperity is no substitute for democracy.”
On Monday, Mr. Lee met Mr. Thein Sein in the capital city of Naypyitaw and attended a state banquet. Mr. Lee recently restarted a development loan program to Myanmar and told Mr. Thein Sein that South Korea would like to provide other economic and education-related assistance to the country.
Mr. Lee flew Tuesday to Yangon to meet Ms. Suu Kyi, the independence leader who was kept under house arrest for many years but who recently won a seat in the country’s parliament.
With the trip, Mr. Lee joined a series of leaders from democratic countries to hastily visit Myanmar, where military leaders stepped down last year and lawmakers were recently elected.
Since December, South Korean diplomats have made successive trips to Myanmar in hopes of building ties for the country’s businesses and driving a wedge between the militaries of Myanmar and North Korea, which have worked together in recent years on weapons.
A senior aide to Mr. Lee told South Korean reporters that Myanmar officials had repeated a vow made to previous visitors from the U.S. and elsewhere that they would abide by United Nations sanctions against the North Korean military.
Myanmar officials also told Mr. Lee they would release a North Korean defector, whose name wasn’t announced, to South Korea. The man was arrested after arriving in Myanmar in 2010 and given a five-year prison term for entering the country illegally.
Analysts in South Korea said the speedy work by the country’s diplomats was somewhat surprising. Jang Jun-young, a Myanmar scholar at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said he expected Mr. Lee would wait until a summit of Asian leaders later this year to meet Mr. Thein Sein.
“It seems like the government gained a better understanding of situation in Myanmar after the foreign minister’s visit,” Mr. Jang said, referring to a trip by Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan two weeks ago. “In addition, Korea didn’t want to fall behind as Japan was aggressively pushing ahead in entering Myanmar.”
Mr. Thein Sein visited Tokyo last month to meet Japanese government and business leaders. Both Japan and South Korea are offering to build a stock market in Myanmar, while companies from the Northeast Asian nations are eyeing business deals in the country.
—Min Sun Lee contributed to this article.