When United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar, she pointedly raised Washington’s concern about the country’s military links with North Korea. While most of the news out of Myanmar since has focused on President Thein Sein’s reform signals and the US’s positive responses, the state of Naypyidaw’s bilateral ties with Pyongyang looms quietly over Washington’s engagement gambit.

Isolated and sanctioned by much of the international community, North Korea has traded its weapons-making expertise with rogue regimes in Syria, Libya and Myanmar. Bilateral relations and commercial exchanges with Myanmar had taken on greater importance after the Arab Spring upended Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi regime and threatens to topple Syria.

The question now is whether the US’s recent rapprochement with Myanmar, a process that began behind the scenes in 2009, will cost the North Korean regime another of its few, arms-purchasing allies. While the US has predicated the removal of its sanctions against Myanmar on democratic reforms, severing ties with Pyongyang could be highly lucrative for Thein Sein’s nominally civilian, military-backed government.

To be sure, Myanmar’s ties to North Korea are based on shaky historical foundations. Myanmar, then known as Burma, broke off ties with Pyongyang in 1983 after North Korean agents attempted to assassinate then South Korean president Chun Doo-Hwan in a bombing in the old capital of Yangon that killed over 20 people, including a South Korean deputy prime minister.

Myanmar restored formal diplomatic relations with North Korea in 2007, notably at a time it came under rising pressure from the US. Before that, Myanmar and North Korea has conducted several underground deals. For instance, North Korean “foreign advisers” were depicted in photographs helping Myanmar to build an extensive tunnel network, including near the new capital of Naypyidaw, between 2003 and 2006.

While it is still unclear whether these tunnels were related to Myanmar’s alleged efforts to build a nuclear weapon capability, they certainly would have served the dual purpose as an emergency shelter in case of any foreign attack or internal insurrection. The US Navy has in recent years turned back at least two North Korean ships destined for Myanmar that were suspected of carrying weapons and possible nuclear materials.

It is also unclear how much of Myanmar’s recent engagement with North Korea was meant as a deterrent against a possible US attack similar to the pre-emptive assault against Iraq. The George W Bush administration frequently referred to Myanmar as an “outpost of tyranny”, along with Iran and Syria. Former First Lady Barbara Bush openly cheered on street demonstrators who protested against the Myanmar government in the so-called 2007 “Saffron” revolution.

In return for North Korea’s tunnel-building assistance and weapons sales, Myanmar provided North Korea with rice to help the former Kim Jong-il regime alleviate the country’s chronic food crisis. The terms of recent deals are unclear, but Myanmar has a steady source of foreign exchange earnings from natural gas sales to China, India and Thailand to purchase North Korean wares.

Now, with the gathering US-Myanmar rapprochement, security analysts are looking for outward clues that Myanmar has downgraded ties with North Korea. As part of its terms of engagement, the US has demanded that Myanmar come clean about its past dealings with North Korea, particularly concerning weapons procurements and possible nuclear contacts.

United States Senator Mitch McConnell, a steadfast critic of Myanmar’s military regime, has called on Naypyidaw to sever its relationship with North Korea altogether. President Thein Sein, on the other hand, has consistently denied that Myanmar has had any nuclear weapons-related contacts with North Korea. (An expose report by the exile-run Democratic Voice of Burma argued with compelling evidence that Myanmar was actively pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, most likely with North Korean help.)

The US is also apparently working with regional ally South Korea to drive a wedge between Myanmar and North Korea, including through conventional arms sales from Seoul. Unlike the US and European Union, South Korea does not maintain formal sanctions against Myanmar.

When Thein Sein began his tentative political reforms in 2011, South Korea resumed offering loans to the country for the first time since 2005. South Korea had temporarily halted lending because of the military junta’s abysmal human-rights record, exhibited by the regime’s brutal clampdown on anti-government protests in 2007.

Before 2005, South Korea had provided aid and grants worth an estimated US$120 million. South Korea also maintains various natural gas concessions in Myanmar waters. The resumption of South Korean lending will give the Myanmar economy a much-needed boost while it undertakes badly needed reforms to its distorted financial architecture.

Washington is wagering that the carrot of removing economic sanctions will influence Myanmar to move away from North Korea and a potential nuclear brinksmanship scenario. That trade-off and the promise of less international isolation probably look increasingly attractive from Thein Sein’s perspective.

Kim Jong-il’s son and successor, Kim Jong-eun, is beginning his reign more isolated than either his father or grandfather, Kim Il-sung. Meanwhile, North Korea’s past proliferation partners, Libya and Syria, are no longer reliable customers. And with Myanmar drifting into the US’s orbit, an isolated Kim Jong-eun may be forced to negotiate a detente with the US and South Korea.

Instead, the evolving engagement between the US and Myanmar could serve as a guide for a potential US-North Korean accommodation. By tempering relations with the US and suspending its nuclear programme, including cooperation with Iran, North Korea could be rewarded with reduced economic sanctions and with Western investments that mitigate Pyongyang’s economic and financial dependence on China.

Both were apparently key motivations for Myanmar’s recent diplomatic shift towards the US and potential drift away from rogue regimes like North Korea.

Jacob Zenn is a lawyer and international security analyst based in Washington, DC.

– Asia Times Online