Myanmar to North Korea: I can’t quit you, baby

BANGKOK, Thailand — Reviled military rulers. A citizenry cowed in fear. Economies strangled by American sanctions.

Just a few years ago, North Korea and Myanmar had much in common.

Today, riding a warp-speed reform movement cheered on by the United States, Myanmar is a riveting turnaround tale.

Its reformist president, who rose to power through an abusive military, is now a Nobel peace prize nominee. Political prisoners have been freed, investors salivate over Myanmar’s economic potential. 

And North Korea, until recently an ally, has been defriended by Myanmar — at America’s insistence.

So, why would Myanmar’s government risk it all by continuing secret ties with North Korea’s feared missile program?

The past two years have witnessed a great rollback of longtime Western sanctions against Myanmar. And yet this month, the White House announced a surprising new decree: US citizens and banks are hereby forbidden from doing business with a high-profile general overseeing missile defense.

His alleged misdeed? Buying “military goods” from North Korea.

Shunning the 57-year-old general, Thein Htay, is part of an effort to “shut down North Korea’s dangerous and destabilizing weapons proliferation,” said David Cohen, the US undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

A degree of mystery surrounds this move.

For more than a decade, the rulers of Myanmar and North Korea have found common cause in their shared status as anti-Western villains. Shunned by international banks, they grew close through old-school bartering.

According to US cables released by Wikileaks, until 2009 Myanmar swapped its plentiful rice stocks for North Korea’s weapons. Myanmar’s generals reportedly flirted with building a nuclear weapons program with North Korea’s help. The State Department has also accused North Korea of supplying Myanmar with “liquid-fueled, ballistic missiles” along with the experts to operate them.

To this day in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, a North Korean state-run restaurant treats patrons to bulgogi and showgirls. Each evening, a milk-skinned, all-girl North Korean rock band performs John Denver’s “Country Roads” and, in a dueling flute instrumental, Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way.”

But for the most part, thanks to the Obama administration, North Korea-Myanmar ties have sputtered. Abandoning the Kim regime’s forces — and their nuke-wielding missile program — was a stated prerequisite to America’s embrace of Myanmar’s rulers. In May 2012, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein proclaimed that the days of buying arms from North Korea were over.

The relationship flamed out and disintegrated into name calling. North Korea sulked when American diplomats called the Kim regime a “bad friend” to Myanmar; a North Korean spokesman retorted that, actually, America was the truly “bad friend.”

Lt. Gen. Thein Htay’s motives for undermining a central pillar of Myanmar’s new connection to the West (and its wealth) is unclear.

The new sanction appeared to catch even the president’s office off guard. Ye Htut, the government’s lead spokesman, conceded to the Myanmar Times that “we don’t know what the decision was based on.”

Though a military-to-military weapons deal hardly seems like a one-man operation, the United States has been careful to limit its censure to Thein Htay alone. The official announcement even took pains to sprinkle praise on Myanmar’s government, which has “continued to take positive steps in severing its military ties with North Korea.”

The subtext implies a poorly kept secret in Myanmar: The reformist new government, led by a clique of ex-general angling for legit democracy, is not in complete control of still-active army chiefs. Andrew Selth, a Myanmar expert with Australia’s Griffith Asia Institute, tosses out a few scenarios in a recent op-ed:

“Is Lt. Gen. Thein Htay a maverick, acting alone? Are Burma’s armed forces beyond the president’s control? Is Naypyidaw (Myanmar’s capital) trying to squeeze in a few more arms sales and wrap up a secret missile program before cutting its ties with Pyongyang?”

Or perhaps US diplomats seized a chance to refute claims they’ve grown too cozy with generals still despised by many for five decades of abusive behavior.

Regardless of who blessed the alleged weapons deal, and why they perceived it as a worthy risk, the United States is only willing to “single out a general rather than hold the government publicly accountable for ongoing military cooperation with North Korea,” according to a July report from the Institute for Science and International Security, a US think tank.

Still, the institute warns that “dealing with the United States with one hand extended to North Korea is unlikely to move the relationship forward.”