Increasingly isolated on the world stage, Myanmar’s junta re-established ties with North Korea this week, renewing ties that were cut five years ago by the former civilian government in line with U.N. sanctions over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
Activists and analysts said the decision was an act of “desperation” for the junta, widely condemned for its 2021 coup and subsequent repression of its own people.
“They are desperately looking for someone who will treat them as friends,” said an anti-junta activist, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Rebuilding the ties is also “troubling” because of the potential for North Korea to sell the junta weapons it will use to suppress its population, he said.
The Sept. 11 appointment of Tin Maung Swe, who is also Myanmar’s ambassador to China, as envoy to Pyongyang came as Kim Jong Un traveled to Russia to meet with his counterpart Vladimir Putin. The two sides are believed to have laid plans for military cooperation, including the transfer of intercontinental ballistic missile technology, and a potential ammunition deal.
“The appointment [coming] while the North Korean and Russian leaders are meeting could be because the junta hopes that doing so will make North Korea help Myanmar as well,” the activist said.
Moe Zaw Oo, deputy foreign minister ofthe shadow National Unity Government – made up of former civilian leaders and anti-junta activists – said the move will weaken regional stability and threaten the global order.
“That’s why the international community needs to take this seriously and provide support for the [anti-junta] resistance [in Myanmar],” he said. “They should also be more supportive of our work against the junta and assist our efforts to remove it.”
The activist called the move “a huge insult” to the country’s late independence leader General Aung San, citing North Korea’s Oct. 9, 1983, failed assassination attempt of then-South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, when agents set off a bomb at Aung San’s mausoleum in Yangon, killing 21 people and wounding nearly 50 others.
General Ne Win, Myanmar’s president at the time, cut diplomatic relations with the North over the attack. While relations were restored in 2007 by then-junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe, they were cut again in 2018 by the civilian government whose de facto leader was Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now jailed.
Lawyer Kyee Myint told RFA he was not surprised by the decision, given what he said was junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s outspoken support for the North since the coup.
He noted that, not long after seizing power, Min Aung Hlaing threatened the people by warning that Myanmar could “become like North Korea,” a repressive police state.
“[His statement] implied that if [the junta] runs the country like North Korea, the people would have it really bad,” he said. “I consider Myanmar’s resumption of diplomatic relations with a country that has committed terrorism on its soil as a collaboration of two terrorist countries.”
The reestablishment of relations could also be part of a bid by the junta to buy weapons and jet fuel from the North using Chinese yuan, said the analyst, who also declined to be named citing security concerns, as sanctions have made it difficult to do so otherwise.
“If that happens, they will reuse those weapons inside the country,” he said.
The analyst noted that the military is increasingly losing troops in ground battles as the resistance becomes better supplied and experienced.
“It looks as if [Min Aung Hlaing] isn’t confident with the weapons he already has,” the analyst said. “That’s why I think he appointed an ambassador to North Korea, so that maybe he can buy something from it through China.”
Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.