First Trip Since Korean Attack

South Korea's leader makes a rare visit to Burma.
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South Korean President Lee Myung Bak meets with Burmese President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, May 14, 2012.
South Korean President Lee Myung Bak meets with Burmese President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, May 14, 2012.
Photo: RFA

President Lee Myung Bak on Monday became the first South Korean leader to visit Burma in the nearly three decades since a North Korean attempt to assassinate his predecessor in the Southeast Asian nation.

Lee is the latest foreign leader to visit Burma as it embraces political and economic reforms under a nominally civilian government after decades of military dictatorship.

He held talks with Burmese President Thein Sein in the administrative capital Naypyidaw and is expected to meet with opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Lee's visit had been kept under tight wraps until the last minute due to security concerns stemming from memories of a North Korean threat to the life of former South Korean president Chun Doo Hwan when he made a visit to Burma in 1983, South Korean news agency Yonhap said in a report.

Chun narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by North Korean agents in 1983 as he was about to lay a wreath to commemorate Burma's independence hero Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, in Rangoon, which was then Burma's capital. He was saved from the bomb blast due to a traffic delay, but the bombing killed 21 people, 17 of them South Koreans, including four Cabinet ministers and the ambassador to Burma.

Three Pyongyang agents were arrested in connection with the raid. One of them blew himself up while being arrested, a second was hanged in prison and a third died inside Rangoon's infamous Insein Prison in 2008.

Burma's then-dictator Ne Win severed diplomatic ties with North Korea after the blast, but relations were restored in 2007.

Military links

Burma's previous military links to North Korea have been criticized by the United States and several other powers but the Burmese government maintains it cannot afford to acquire nuclear weapons and that it has always abided by U.N. resolutions.

Lee could discuss ways to cut off any military cooperation between Burma and North Korea, Yonhap said, amid previous reports that Burma, under an arms embargo by many Western powers, may have sourced its weapons from Pyongyang against U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Lee's office said in a statement that he would discuss expanding cooperation in energy and resources development and other areas during his meeting with the former general Thein Sein.

It said the visit was "expected to contribute to attempts by the international community to support [Burma]'s recent efforts to open up and reform."

Yonhap said Lee offered a "wide-ranging aid package" to Burma, in which South Korea is the fourth largest foreign investor after China, Hong Kong, and Thailand.

The operator of South Korea's stock exchange is competing with the Tokyo Stock Exchange to open a share market in Burma, which is emerging on the radar screens of international investors.

Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

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