Myanmar looking to North Korea for arms support?

Concerns have been raised that the junta is aiming to expand its international contacts and evade international sanctions since Myanmar has enlarged the mandate of its ambassador to China to include North Korea.

According to reports on the Burmese-language programming of Radio Free Asia, Tin Maung Swe was appointed an envoy to Pyongyang on September 11 in addition to his duties in Beijing.

The declaration came as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was traveling to the far east of Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin to speak about fostering stronger ties.

Concerns over a potential arms agreement between North Korea and Russia have been expressed by the US and South Korea, in which Russian missile and nuclear technology would be exchanged for North Korean artillery shells and drones to be used in Moscow’s conflict with Ukraine.

Since seizing control in a coup in February 2021, Myanmar’s junta has been occupied with the conflict with armed rebel organizations. According to analysts, North Korea might offer the junta a source of small arms and artillery ammo in exchange for rice and other critically needed supplies in North Korea.

Russia has been a major source of arms for the junta, but its conflict in Ukraine has hampered delivery.

According to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, “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.”

He told DW that “both pariah regimes also crave diplomatic recognition to demonstrate to their domestic audiences that they are not entirely isolated.”

Easley continued by saying that both regimes were subject to international sanctions and were seeking to widen their network of supportive nations.

The military junta may revive contacts with fellow pariah Pyongyang, he suggested, as a result of the increasing economic sanctions that are isolating it more and more.

What can a partnership entail?
International relations expert Stephen Nagy of International Christian University in Tokyo said it was “not surprising” that the isolated regimes were looking for new partners.

“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 unable to source them from elsewhere,” he said.

With small arms ammunition and other military supplies, like as drones, being delivered in the opposite way, Myanmar is likely to be able to supply some minerals, food, and hard cash.

According to Nagy, the main challenge to any future deal would likely be transportation. However, he added, financial trades might be conducted using obscure cryptocurrency.

Nagy asserted that Beijing would be hesitant to participate in any alliance, despite the fact that the two nations share a physical border with China.

It is intriguing that Myanmar turned to North Korea for help rather than China, he said. As Beijing worries about additional sanctions at a time when its domestic economy is already very fragile, “I see China trying to position itself very carefully.”

Myanmar and North Korea’s relationship history
The possibility of a recent alliance between North Korea and Myanmar masks a tumultuous past.

A bomb went off at the Martyrs’ mausoleum in Yangon on October 9, 1983, just before Chun Doo-hwan, the president of South Korea, was scheduled to pay his respects there.

The president arrived late due to traffic, but numerous members of his government and their hosts were already at the tomb when the bomb exploded, killing 21 people and injuring up to 50 more.

Three North Korean military members were swiftly recognized by police as being responsible for the assault. The subsequent manhunt resulted in the death of one of the North Korean attackers. After another refused to confess or assist the investigation, they were both put to death.

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.

After the event, Myanmar broke off diplomatic ties, but they were later repaired in 2007. In order to comply with international sanctions on North Korea, ties were once more severed during the civilian administration of now-imprisoned democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar.

Kim cultivates his “statesman” persona
The international attention on Kim’s meeting with Putin has been utilized by North Korean media to improve the leader’s reputation at home.

The visit “opened up a new chapter in DPRK-Russia relations with independence against imperialism as its ideological basis,” according to state media.

The development of Kim’s cult of personality as a great statesman, according to Nagy, was also likely to be accomplished through a new friendship with Myanmar.

“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,” said the author. “Even a small advantage can be of great assistance to Kim.”

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