N Korean visit clouded in secrecy

North Korea’s foreign minister, Pak Ui-chun, arrived in Burma today on a four- day visit as the highest-level delegate from the reclusive state to travel to Burma since bilateral relations were normalised in 2007.

Few details have been made public about Pak’s itinerary, but today he visited the famous Shwedagon Pagoda and the National Museum in Rangoon, and is due to travel to the capital Naypidaw on Friday. There he will meet with his counter part, Nyan Win.

The visit has not officially been announced by either government, and Nyan Win will have just returned from a trip to India with junta chief, Than Shwe. It is not known whether Pak will meet with the reclusive senior general.

Fresh speculation about military ties between the two countries will likely follow: the apparently warming relationship has concerned the US, which points to suspicious North Korean ships docking in Rangoon and a DVB exposé about Burma’s nuclear intentions, via military defector Sai Thein Win, as evidence.

Pak is a veteran of North Korean foreign policy, having held posts as ambassador to Russia for 18 years as well as heading missions in Syria, Algeria and Lebanon.

His visit will represent a large step forward for bilateral relations between the two countries, which soured in 1983 when a bomb detonated by North Korean agents killed members of a South Korean delegation in Rangoon, who were visiting the Martyrs Mausoleum.

The attack failed to take out its intended target, South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan, but resulted in a suspension of bilateral relations between the North and Burma.

Their shared pariah status has been a warming factor in relations as both countries struggle to overcome isolation, particularly in regards to trading partners. Earlier this year the Burmese junta honoured North Korean leader Kim Jong-il with a special ceremony for his birthday. Both have been under US scrutiny for their weapons trading and the alleged North Korean assistance to Burma’s nascent nuclear programme.

Hilary Clinton said before the recent ASEAN Regional Foreign (ARF) Ministers meeting in Hanoi that “we continue to be concerned by the reports that Burma may be seeking assistance from North Korea with regard to a nuclear programme.”

The US extended sanctions on Burma after the Hanoi meet, which was attended by Pak, citing links to North Korea as one of the main reasons.

Washington is currently undertaking with South Korea joint naval exercises off the coast of North Korea, which will involve the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the George Washington. The operation was given added poignancy by the alleged North Korean sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan. The US and South Korea indicted the North for the sinking, which killed 46 sailors, but refused to let North Korean officials examine the aged evidence.

Burma and North Korea’s shared antipathy of the US may feature heavily in talks, as North Korean looks to include a regional ally its stand-off against Washington.

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