Fears Myanmar buying missiles from North Korea raise Canberra’s alarm

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Bangkok: The Turnbull government has criticised Myanmar over reports the south-east Asia country has been receiving ballistic missile system technology and weapons from North Korea.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs told Fairfax Media it is “concerned” by the reports and condemns North Korea’s illicit weapons program “in the strongest possible terms”.

But the spokesperson said there are no plans to cut the Australian Defence Force’s training and other support for Myanmar’s military.

A confidential report by independent United Nations monitors, leaked to journalists in Washington, revealed North Korea violated UN sanctions to earn US$200 million last year, including by supplying weapons to Myanmar and Syria.

The report suggested Myanmar, which is accused of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, has been seeking items that are controlled by nuclear and other major weapon proliferation agreements.

In a 213-page report the UN monitors said one country, which they did not identify, reported it had evidence that Myanmar received ballistic missile systems from North Korea, along with conventional weapons, including multiple rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles in 2017.

Security analysts see Myanmar’s military ties with North Korea as one of the serious security concerns in Australia’s nearest region.

Myanmar’s government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly denied having military ties with Pyongyang, insisting that arms deals and other military relations with the country stopped before its transition to a nominally civilian government in 2011.

North Korea is believed to have first sent missile experts and material for arms production to Myanmar a decade ago.

This included technology for Hwasong-5 (Scud B) missiles that are mobile and have a range of up to 300 kilometres.

In 2014 Chinese authorities confirmed to UN monitors that North Korean-made ballistic missile-related alloy rods destined for Myanmar had been found on a ship that had docked in China.

Late last year North Korea launched its new Hwasong-15 inter-continental ballistic missile which Pyongyang claimed was capable of carrying a “super-heavy” payload that could target mainland United States.

Analysts say many questions remain about the system but that it represented a significant leap forward for North Korea’s missile capability.

The United States last year stepped up pressure on Myanmar to sever its links with North Korea, sending Joseph Yun, the US’s Special Envoy on North Korea, to the country to underscore Washington’s concerns.

A US official said at the time the visit was to send a message to Myanmar that any engagement with North Korea, particularly military engagement, is counterproductive to trying to end the threat that North Korea poses to the region and the globe.

Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security consultant and analyst with the defence and security publisher Jane’s, said no evidence has yet surfaced showing that Myanmar’s military has developed battlefield capability for ballistic missiles.

But he said if Myanmar can develop short-range or intermediate or missile capability it would seriously concern other regional states, especially neighbouring Bangladesh.

Atrocities committed against Rohingya by Myanmar’s armed forces in the country’ Rakhine State have heightened tensions between the two countries.

Almost 700,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine for squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh since August in what the UN has described as ethnic cleansing and “very likely” crimes against humanity.

Visiting Hong Kong in November, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull accused North Korea of being one of the world’s most “cunning, sophisticated criminal” organisations and urged tightened economic and financial sanctions on the country.

But Australia has resisted growing calls to cut military ties with Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis.

The Foreign Affairs spokesperson said Australia’s defence engagement with Myanmar is limited to non-combat areas such as disaster relief and language training and “is designed to help promote positive change in Myanmar.”

“There are no plans to cut this engagement.”

The spokesperson said Australia “regularly discusses the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions against North Korea with our partners in the region, including Myanmar where discussions most recently took place in December 2017.”

In the leaked report, the UN also said North Korea had last year violated UN sanctions by shipping coal to foreign ports, including in Russia, China, South Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Most of the shipments had false paperwork showing the coal came from countries such as Russia and China.

The 15-member UN Security Council has boosted sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in an attempt to cut funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, banning exports including coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood.

The United States and European Union have signalled they are considering targeted sanctions against Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has expressed Australia’s concern over the Myanmar atrocities but has refused to condemn Myanmar’s generals or government.





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