BANGKOK—A leaked report purportedly drafted by authorities in Burma’s military government describes a top-secret visit to North Korea late last year by Burma's top brass, during which the two sides pledged to significantly expand cooperation in military training and arms production.
The 37-page report in Burmese claims to contain details of a Nov. 22-29 visit to North Korea by 17 Burmese officials, billed as a goodwill visit to China and reportedly led by Gen. Thura Shwe Mann, Burma's third-ranked leader and armed forces chief of staff.
It also contains 118 photos said to have been taken in North Korea and 64 said to have been taken in China, from where the group was said to have traveled to North Korea.
The two countries will cooperate to modernize military arms and equipment and will exchange experiences on such matters."
Photographs in the report show a Burmese delegation in uniform in China but in civilian clothing in North Korea, suggesting a bid to keep the visit to North Korea low-profile.
Exile Burmese media have voiced alarm in recent days at reports of growing ties between Burma and nuclear-armed North Korea, both highly reclusive pariah states targeted by international sanctions, and have warned that this warming relationship indicates Burma's own nuclear ambitions.
The report is titled “Report of the High-Level Burmese Military delegation led by SPDC member and Military Chief General Thura Shwe Mann to the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] and the PRC [People's Republic of China] from Nov. 21-Dec. 2, 2008.”
SPDC, denoting the State Peace and Development Council, is the Burmese junta's formal name.
The report says the delegation left Burma’s remote new capital, Naypyidaw, on a special aircraft Nov. 21 at the invitation of Chinese Defense Ministry Central Commission member and armed forces Chief of Staff Gen. Chen Bingde and North Korean Defense Ministry Chief of General Staff Gen. Kim Kyok Sik.
The report was transmitted to RFA's Burmese service through a knowledgeable source in Burma's former capital, Rangoon.
Out in the cold
The report surfaced just as both regimes find themselves farther out in the wilderness than ever before.
North Korea recently launched a long-range missile over Japan and conducted a second nuclear test, prompting a new round of U.N. sanctions and an international outcry, even from longtime allies in Moscow and Beijing. It test-fired four short-range missiles on Tuesday.
Burma has meanwhile brought a bizarre criminal case to trial against detained opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and renewed a military offensive against ethnic rebels in the east, forcing thousands to seek refuge in Thailand.
Over the last week, U.S. officials tracked a North Korean ship, the Kang Nam I, suspected of heading toward Burma with illicit weapons on board in violation of new U.N. sanctions. The ship turned around and headed back north on Sunday.
The Bangkok-based Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner, an authority on North Korea, said the report may have been fabricated and leaked to discredit the Burmese exile press. But he added that it could also indicate “there are people within the military establishment not very happy with its cooperation with North Korea.”
If the latter is true, “They leaked the information in order to make it known to the international community, especially the U.N. Security Council, which has imposed sanctions on new North Korea arm exports,” Lintner said.
Htay Aung, a researcher at the Thai-based Burmese opposition group Network for Democracy and Development, said he believed the report was authentic, and either sold by mid- to low-level officers or leaked by opponents of cooperation with Pyongyang.
The latter group “seems unhappy with projects to equip the military with costly weapons and technologies as the country goes deeper into poverty,” Htay Aung said.
Aim to modernize
The stated aim of the visit was “to modernize the Burmese military and increase its capabilities through visiting and studying the militaries” of China and North Korea.
The group reportedly included Gen. Thura Shwe Mann, Lt. Gen. Myint Hlaing (anti-air defense chief), Maj. General Hla Htay Win (training), Maj. General Khin Aung Myint (air force), Maj. General Thein Htay (vice chief of staff, ordnance), Maj. Gen. Mya Win (munitions), Brig. Gen. Hla Myint (tanks), Brig. Gen. Kyaw Nyunt (military communications), Brig. Gen. Nyan Tun (engineering), and staff officers.
After signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the North Korean side on Nov. 27, according to the report, the Burmese delegation deemed the visit a success. The report concludes:
"1. The two militaries will cooperate in the teaching and training of military science. The Burmese military will focus on studying special forces training, military security training, training in tunnel warfare, air defense training, and language training for both countries. 2. The two militaries will cooperate in the building of tunnels for aircraft and ships as well as other underground military installations. The two countries will cooperate to modernize military arms and equipment and will exchange experiences on such matters. As such, the objective and aim of the high-level visit is deemed to be successful."
The report makes reference to several appendices that are omitted from the text obtained by RFA.
Outings and visits
A detailed account in the report includes discussions with North Korean Chief of General Staff Gen. Kim Kyok Sik, visits to weapons and radar factories, and a missile launch site.
About one-quarter of the report is devoted to comparing the Chinese and North Korean militaries. It makes no specific mention of any actual or planned military purchases.
The report says the Burmese delegation was shown North Korean surface-to-air missiles and rockets, along with naval and air defense systems and tunnel construction, including how Pyongyang stores aircraft and ships underground to protect them from aerial attack.
It also describes a Nov. 23 visit to North Korea’s National Air Defense Control Center and a Nov. 24 visit to a North Korean naval unit in Nampo.
Subsequent outings included tours of an armored division of the North Korean Aerial Defense Corps, the AA Weapons & Rockets Factory, and three underground missile factories, according to the report.
North Korean officials also showed the Burmese delegation the USS Pueblo warship, seized by North Korea in 1968 and now docked in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
The tour included visits to Pyongyang and to Myohyang, where the government has dug secret tunnels to store jet aircraft, missiles, tanks, and weapons.
The delegation also visited a Scud tactical ballistic missile factory outside Pyongyang, the report said. Pyongyang has since the 1980s been a major supplier of Scud missiles to Iran, Egypt, and Syria.
Market for North Korea
Another recent report by Lintner, the Swedish journalist, claims that North Korean engineers have been actively building a vast network of underground tunnels in Burma.
Lintner, author of Blood Brothers: The Criminal Underworld of Asia and Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan, reported that the Burmese junta began tunnel construction with North Korean assistance as early as 2005, when the country's capital was moved to Naypyidaw from Rangoon.
Lintner said he regards the report as further evidence of deepening ties between Burma and North Korea, with China—unwilling to sell arms to Burma for fear of alienating major powers—now playing the role of broker.
North Korea is likely looking for new arms buyers now that its arms sales to Libya and Pakistan have dried up, he said.
“North Korea has a lot of things to offer, and they are willing to sell anyone who can pay for it,” Lintner said. “They are looking for a new customer. And Burma seems to be the perfect one.”
Original reporting by Kyaw Min Htun for RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.