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S Korean FM approaching Burma with caution

South Korea has said it will raise the issue of controversial military ties between Burma and North Korea when a senior government official visits the pariah state next week.

Seoul will also encourage Burma to ensure that elections slated for 7 November this year are open, foreign ministry spokesman Kim Young-son told Yonhap news agency.

Vice foreign minister Shin Kak-soo is due to visit Burma for four days starting 19 August. He told Yonhap that South Korea was “keeping a close eye on possible military cooperation between Myanmar [Burma] and North Korea, including nuclear cooperation,” adding that the government was working with the US to investigate reports that the two countries were trading nuclear material.

His comments come days after a South Korean bank, the Korea Exchange Bank, said it would suspend its US dollar remittance service to Burma as part of an international crackdown on countries suspected of financing terror.

The bank is controlled by a US buyout fund, and therefore subject to US sanctions on Burma. It said also that it would stop accepting dollar remittances from Burma, although other foreign currencies would not be affected.

South Korea has been somewhat of a mixed bag when it comes to relations with Burma: the two countries enjoy healthy bilateral trade, and Seoul has poured billions into Burma’s energy sector, but the ruling junta’s blossoming relationship with Pyongyang has worried one half of the peninsula.

Relations between the North and South nosedived earlier this year after Seoul accused Pyongyang of torpedoing its navy vessel, the Cheonan – an allegation that the Kim Jong-il regime has strenuously denied.

North Korea’s foreign minister, Pak Ui-chun, led a delegation to Burma last month, marking the first senior governmental trip to the country since bilateral relations were normalised in 2007, after a 16-year freeze which followed North Korea’s attempted assassination in Rangoon in 1983 of South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan.

Intense scrutiny surrounded the visit, which came less than two months after DVB revealed close military collaboration between the two countries in the face of tight arms embargoes on both.

But despite Seoul’s concerns about the reports, as well as its sporadic condemnation of the human rights situation inside the country, the potential for tightening South Korea’s economic foothold in Burma is likely to also feature highly when Shin meets with government ministers in Naypyidaw. Last month the two countries signed an agreement to jointly exploit two lucrative gas blocks in Burma, while South Korean companies Korean Gas Corp (KOGAS) and Daewoo International hold sizeable stakes in the Shwe gas pipeline project.


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