South Korea is a willing middle man

Before arriving in Burma today, US senator Jim Webb, the man who valiantly saved John ‘Swimmer’ Yettaw last year, was in South Korea paying tribute to the 60-year anniversary of the commencement of the Korean War.

The three-year conflict “provided Asia with a balance and a guarantee of stability and prosperity that were unimaginable when the war began”, the fiery-haired envoy said in a statement of the legacy of a war that split the Korean peninsula and whose reverberations are felt to this day, not least by the South Korean navy.

Next stop is Burma, where it would be hard to imagine the nightmare that was to come back in 1950; hard to imagine many villainous enough to conjure the “stability” of the endless night of military rule in their minds. And if Webb’s message was lost on this insignificant delta, then surely the other group of delegates who arrived in Rangoon on Monday would appreciate it.

Ten “giant” South Korean companies met with Burmese business people on Monday in the country’s commercial capital, according to the China-based People’s Daily newspaper; there to strengthen bilateral ties in a variety of sectors.

On South Korea’s part the extractive industries of Burma are the prize, and as always, investment seems set to rise for Burma’s tenth largest foreign investor. Companies such as Daewoo and Hyundai, for instance, have assisted in the construction of pipelines that will export vast mineral wealth out of Burma, at a paltry fee.

The Burmese junta are seemingly licking their chapped lips at the prospect of $US29 billion over 30 years from the Shwe Gas pipeline. This would not cover the bill for the armed forces, which costs roughly $US1.07 billion per year – fairly good value when you consider that there are over half a million men ready to fight. Compare this however with the estimated $US77 billion that a country like Iran makes in a single year from crude oil exports.

Daewoo had also, back in 2002, been involved in a $US133.8 million project to transfer factory technology to Burma to construct shell casings. This was seen by many as concession in order to gain access to lucrative fossil fuel projects, but reassuringly it came under fire in Seoul as 14 executives faced censure from their government.

Now the same industry giants arrive for bilateral trade talks just over a month after their northern counterparts were rumoured to have sent a ship to Burma for ‘bilateral trade’ of the sought that was castigated by Seoul back in 2002. The business this week was wholesome, extractive industries that economically unsophisticated ministers love; every good minister needs a new Mercedes these days.

And so as Webb, his countrymen and the South Koreans pour over the wreckage of a sunken warship and pass weary looks towards their northern neighbours, Webb reminds us “never to forget” those who fell in Korea. Maybe we should also not forget where the North Koreans got the money to buy the torpedo that sank the Cheonan in March, and where the Burmese junta got the money to pay the North Koreans.

Al Jazeera is airing an exclusive DVB documentary this week that uncovers the portentous relationship between Burma and North Korea

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