Administration Jumps the Language Barrier on Burma-North Korea Ties

Walter Lohman /

To achieve American aims in Burma, a policy is needed that clearly lays out the benchmarks of reform and consequences of Burma’s failure to meet them. Lately, these measurements have been anything but clear.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury recently sanctioned Lieutenant General Thein Htay, the head of Burma’s Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI), for trading in North Korean arms and acting on behalf of DDI—itself an already sanctioned entity.

In the process, Treasury drew a fine line between DDI on the one hand and the Burmese government on the other, which according to Treasury’s press release, “continued…positive steps in severing its military ties with North Korea.”

It is a very odd distinction. The U.S. Treasury Department’s own list of Specially Designated Nationals says DDI is part of the part of the Burmese Ministry of Defense. The Ministry of Defense, of course, is part of the Burmese government. So how can an active-duty military officer officially representing an agency of the Ministry of Defense not be acting on behalf of the government or Burma?

It is the government of Burma that is guilty of being “involved in the illicit trade of North Korean arms to Burma.” To acknowledge this, however, would undermine the Administration’s narrative on its Burma policy. The Burmese government has repeatedly reassured the U.S. about its ties with North Korea. If it is not actually making progress—on one of the most serious concerns of policymakers—the logic behind the rush to lift sanctions, and even begin to offer benefits like the Generalized System of Preferences and military-to-military engagement, comes into question.

From the Administration’s perspective, it may be better to keep the “success” story straight and change the language. Plain language would better suit American national interests.