Why Burma May Be North Korea's Best Friend

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Vincent Yu / AP Photo

A North Korean ship, the Kang Nam I, shown anchored in Hong Kong waters in October 2006

North Korea is great at scaring its neighbors. The isolated dictatorship carries a real nuclear threat, and tested its latest device this May in an underground bunker. Tensions in East Asia heightened this week after Pyongyang threatened "a fire shower of nuclear retaliation" if the U.S. or its allies in the region attempted any provocative action when trying to curb North Korea's missile program. Even those with historically warmer ties to the pariah state, such as Russia and China, have bristled at Pyongyang's latest moves. Still, North Korea may not be without friends.

Reports this week reminded the world of a fitting — if slightly bewildering — relationship: a decrepit and slow North Korean cargo ship, reportedly laden with arms, is on its way to Burma, a country ruled by a similarly obstinate and oppressive military junta. A watchful U.S. missile destroyer is following, close on its heels.

From most accounts, the Kang Nam 1 is a rusty old freighter, inching along at a paltry 10 knots an hour. By Thursday, it was believed to be chugging through Chinese or Taiwanese waters, having left the North Korean port of Nampo a week ago, and headed, according to the South Korean press, to the Burmese port of Thilawa. Its cargo is unknown; Burma's state newspaper claims authorities expect the arrival of a "rice-bearing" North Korean vessel, though most news reports suspect the Kang Nam 1 bears a load of small arms and other conventional weapons. North Korea, whose people have lived on the verge of famine for decades, is not a known food exporter.

What it does export is invariably shrouded in mystery. Pyongyang exists frozen outside the global economy and raises funds through a host of backdoor activities, including the manufacture of counterfeit money and dissemination of its military secrets and technological capabilities to a whole network of dubious customers. As a consequence of Pyongyang's recent bellicose behavior, a new U.N. resolution passed this June forbids the country from exporting arms and authorizes member states to search North Korean vessels suspected to be carrying them, though they must first seek Pyongyang's legal consent — effectively, a non-starter. Nevertheless, the U.S.S. John McCain, an Aegis class destroyer, has been tailing the freighter and will be replaced now by the U.S.S. McCampbell as the Kang Nam 1 nears the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, perhaps the world's biggest maritime pit stop. The city-state's government says it will act "appropriately" should the vessel call at its port with illegal materials on board. According to South Korean press, the Kang Nam 1 will need to refuel soon.

North Korean links with Burma range far beyond small firearms — indeed, ties between the two outcast nations are literally deep. North Korean engineers reportedly aided the Burma's junta in building a vast series of 600 to 800 tunnel complexes and underground facilities, particularly beneath the junta's secretive new capital of Naypyidaw. Photographs leaked earlier this month to YaleGlobal, an international affairs website, show North Korean technicians milling around guest houses in the capital. Others published by the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma, an anti-government television channel, detail the extent of some of these complexes, which have independent power supplies, built-in ventilation systems, and are reportedly large enough to allow large vehicles to drive through them. The projects have been nicknamed "tortoise shells" by the government — the often brutally repressive regime intends to use North Korea's subterranean savvy to man a network of underground command centers, linked with fiber-optic cable, that can rule Burma in times of emergency and quash any civilian uprising.

The Burmese and North Koreans were not always this close. In 1983, North Korean agents bombed a South Korean delegation visiting a monument in Rangoon. More than 20 people died and Burma severed relations with Pyongyang. But the two nations held secret talks during the 1990s and restored formal ties in 2007. Soon thereafter, North Korean vessels started docking at Burmese ports, reportedly unloading heavy equipment and weapons parts. It is suspected that resource-rich Burma sends minerals, rubber and foodstuffs to North Korea in return for such assistance.

A tense standoff between U.S. ships and the Kang Nam 1 would hardly upset Pyongyang; the Burmese junta has proven to be wholly insensitive to criticism and protest from the outside world. Watchers of both isolated states see a joint circling of wagons in the face of a hostile international community. With many policy makers already tearing at their hair over North Korea's nuclear intransigence, it's a state of affairs that can only deepen global concern.