Has Kim Jong Il's Death Caused a Breakthrough in Burma?

While it has largely been out of the public eye, big things are happening in Burma. After decades of war and military dictatorship, the government and rebel groups have signed a series of ceasefires and have begun to release political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi (whose National League of Democracy, as Kim Kardashian concisely explained, “won over 82% of the seats in the 1990 national election”, and is now back on the campaign trail).

Image credit: Reuters

While developments in Burma have been slowly moving in the right direction since the beginning of this decade (the 2010s), why is it that, in the last month, there has been such a grand acceleration in this move toward (what hopefully will be) a free society?

The answer may be found in an event relatively far removed from Burma, where the former Burmese junta’s major military backer in weapons development and tactical know-how has died. That man is known to the world as Kim Jong Il.

As recounted in the Thai-based Burmese dissident magazine Irrawaddy:

In the 1970s, the North Korean hermit kingdom forged a formal diplomatic relationship with Burma’s then socialist regime when Kim Jong Il’s father, Kim Il Sung, was head of state.

That friendship didn’t last long, however, because in 1983 North Korean agents snuck into Burma and attempted to assassinate visiting South Korean president Chun Doo-Hwan in Rangoon, killing several visiting South Korean ministers in the process. [Note: Kim Jong Il himself was the mastermind behind this attack]

As a result, the Burmese government hunted down the terrorists and cut diplomatic relations with North Korea. But the next Burmese military regime, which came to power through a bloody coup in 1988, secretly renewed their country’s severed ties with North Korea as early as 1999.

Afterwards, North Korean ships sailed into Burmese ports to deliver military hardware and it is alleged that Burma was actively seeking nuclear technology from Pyongyang.

In 2007, the two governments formally restored their diplomatic relationship despite the fact that Pyongyang never formally apologized for the 1983 bombing. The Burmese generals even attended North Korean diplomatic functions and Burma’s state-run newspapers published articles praising Kim Jong Il on his birthday.

That same year, the Burmese regime brutally cracked-down on the monk-led protest known as the Saffron Revolution, which [Vaclav] Havel joined world leaders in condemning.

Only one year later, Burmese Gen Thura Shwe Mann made a clandestine visit to North Korea [see secret photos obtained by Irrawaddy here] and signed a memorandum of understanding [which was also obtained by Irrawaddy and can be seen here, although it is in Burmese only] under which North Korea agreed to build or supervise the construction of special Burmese military facilities, including tunnels and caves in which missiles, aircraft and even naval ships could be hidden [see photos of the tunnels here].

Security experts agree that North Korea has provided Burma with Scud-type missiles, missile parts, rocket launchers, other conventional weapons and underground warfare technology. On some occasions, US naval ships followed and turned away North Korean ships believed heading to Burma.

There are concerns that Burma’s clandestine purchases of military hardware and technology from North Korea are still ongoing, as reflected by the fact that during her recent visit to Burma, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Burmese leadership must stop any illicit military, nuclear and ballistic missile cooperation with North Korea that may violate UN sanctions on Pyongyang.

The influence of these North Korean projects and personnel should not be underestimated. That is how the true godfather of North Korea, the KGB, controlled places like Egypt in Nasser’s time. Kim’s death may well have had more of an impact on events outside North Korea than we realize.

As it stands, the direction of political changes in Burma appear to be positive. All we can do now is keep our fingers crossed.