South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a surprise visit to Myanmar to wean the country from military ally North Korea.
"Which is better: to have close ties with South Korea or North Korea?" a South Korean government official asked May 13, a day before Lee’s arrival. "If (Myanmar) plans to move toward democracy, the answer is simple."
It is the first visit by a South Korean leader since President Chun Doo-hwan narrowly escaped a North Korean terrorist bombing in Rangoon, now called Yangon, in October 1983. The attack killed 17 South Koreans, including four Cabinet ministers.
Myanmar has long had close military ties with North Korea. China and Russia are also among a small number of countries that have supplied weapons to Myanmar.
Myanmar and North Korea are also suspected of collaborating on nuclear development. Myanmar has provided natural resources and food to North Korea.
In a meeting in Naypyidaw on May 14, Lee is believed to have asked Myanmar President Thein Sein to end military cooperation with North Korea and strengthen relations with South Korea centered on economic cooperation.
With Myanmar now opening up to economic and political reforms, South Korea decided it was time to end the strain in relations caused by North Korea's assassination attempt almost three decades ago and forge a new relationship.
For its part, Myanmar apparently plans to keep its distance from North Korea so as not to give the West a reason to maintain economic sanctions.
The United States has pressed Myanmar to sever ties with North Korea as a condition for pulling sanctions.
Thura Shwe Mann, speaker of the lower house of Myanmar's parliament, was allegedly involved in arms deals with North Korea when Myanmar was under military rule.
However, the politician repeatedly denied past military links with North Korea at a news conference early this year.
Lee's move to strengthen relations with Myanmar represents an effort by South Korea to apply pressure on North Korea, quite apart from international sanctions.
South Korea, for example, is pushing to expand its economic ties with China, North Korea's main ally, as a way to exert influence on Beijing in its stance toward the reclusive neighbor.
According to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency, Lee and Thein Sein reached agreement May 14 on increased economic assistance in the form of South Korean grants and loans to Myanmar. They also agreed to expand cooperation in resource development.
South Korea's loan aid program to Myanmar had been suspended since 2005.
"New investments and assistance should benefit both sides," a South Korean government source said.
Myanmar expects South Korea to increase its investment in steel and other heavy industries.
South Korea got a jump on Western countries when it came to investing in Myanmar. As of the end of March, South Korea ranked fourth after China, Thailand and Hong Kong in terms of accumulated investments in the country, accounting for 7 percent.
In response to the end of military rule in Myanmar in March 2011, however, the United States and Europe have moved to lift or relax economic sanctions.
South Korea dispatched its foreign minister, Kim Sung-hwan, to Myanmar earlier this month.
"We should not allow ourselves to be overtaken by other countries," a South Korean government source said.
Myanmar offers rich resources, such as natural gas and minerals, and a cheap labor force. With a population of 60 million, the country is also potentially a lucrative market.
(This article was written by Tetsuya Hakoda, Akihiko Kaise and Takeshi Fujitani.)
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