Kim Yong-nam, head of the North Korean parliament, talks with visiting Burmese Foreign Minister U Nyan Win in Pyongyang.

© 2008 Reuters

The U.S. Navy shadowing a North Korean cargo ship suspected of carrying weapons bound for Burma is the stuff of potboiler thrillers. Yet for two of the world’s most reclusive and repressive states, the only unique feature of these events is the fact that anyone is taking notice. For several years, Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and Kim Jong Il’s government in North Korea have been slowly strengthening their diplomatic and military ties, largely beneath the international radar.

U.S. monitoring of the North Korean freighter Kang Nam, as part of newly introduced United Nations Security Council sanctions, comes on the heels of recent allegations that North Korean engineers have been assisting the Burmese military with the construction of underground bunkers, either for a nuclear program or as the result of paranoia over a feared but illusory future U.S. invasion. Indeed, there might be no other country better positioned to offer such know-how, as North Korea has a long history of building underground bunkers and tunnels, including a few across the inter-Korea border that have since been discovered and sealed by South Korea.

That the freighter has now turned around and is heading back to North Korea doesn’t resolve the issue of what is on the ship and what its purpose would be in Burma. It raises more questions about bilateral defense links between the two countries.

North Korea has earned notoriety and opprobrium for misallocating vast sums of money in one of the world’s poorest countries to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Its nuclear ambitions hit the headlines again last week, with media in South Korea and Japan reporting that the Kim Jong Il regime may be preparing to launch a long-range ballistic missile across the Pacific. Apparently as part of its effort to grab attention, North Korea also reminded the world of the depth of its repressive apparatus when it sentenced two American journalists to 12 years of “reform through labor” for illegal entry and another unspecified “crime against the state” after a closed-door trial.

Burma’s nuclear ambitions are far murkier and less developed. Burma’s arms suppliers have always been eclectic, ranging from predictable sources like China, Russia, and Singapore to others such as Ukraine, South Africa and Serbia. North Korea has entered the frame in the past few years as it has provided multiple launch rocket systems, artillery and military advisors, including the tunneling experts. Relations between the two countries have improved since 2007, when formal diplomatic ties were reestablished for the first time since they were severed in 1983 after North Korean agents assassinated several members of the South Korean government in a bomb blast in Burma’s then capitol Rangoon.

The specter of two reclusive and repressive regimes moving closer together would hardly be worth mentioning if not for the fact that one has nuclear weapons – and the other seems to want them. Heightening the security concerns is the fact that both dictatorships can operate in the dark as neither has a free press, civil society or public opinion to hold them to account. Both governments use the basic tactics of violence, censorship, fear, poverty, privation, and isolation to remain in power – and make it hard for outsiders to know what is happening in the country.

In Burma, although the military government is more open to U.N. agencies, relief groups, tourists and investors, the suppression of all forms of domestic dissent is nearly total. Aung San Suu Kyi’s bizarre trial after an American swam across a lake and entered her home should remind us that there are 2,100 other political prisoners in the country. Each time Burma’s leaders launch military operations against domestic armed ethnic groups, its record of widespread and systematic attacks against civilians comes into view. Living standards inside Burma continue to deteriorate for the majority of the population.

In North Korea, political repression is so severe that there is no prominent opposition leader such as Aung San Suu Kyi. Indeed, since the foundation of the North Korean state in 1948, there has been no large-scale public rally known to the outside world that called for freedom, democracy and protection of basic human rights. North Korea is the world’s expert on collective punishment: If one member of a family commits an offense of a political nature it is the norm for three generations of the entire family to be sent to a prison camp for life or, if they are more fortunate, to a remote, mountainous area where food is scarce and life unimaginably hard.

The world’s security concerns and the need for human rights improvements, particularly freedom of expression and information, are therefore inextricably linked in both countries. Instead of only dealing with each country when it commits outrages or hits the 24-hour news cycle, the world needs to make the plight of some of the world’s longest suffering citizens a consistent priority.

Burma and North Korea share one other key dimension. China is the central external player in both countries. China is the biggest trading partner for each country and has long provided crucial political support. It is now frustrated with both: with North Korea for breaking its commitments in “six-party talks,” and with Burma for embarrassing it by failing to make even minimal attempts to discuss reform with Aung San Suu Kyi and other political opponents.

China should use its diplomatic, political and economic tools to press Burma’s ruling generals and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il to rethink the destructive and dangerous paths that each is on. It should support efforts to uncover the full extent of military links between Naypyidaw and Pyongyang, from nuclear technology right down to the small arms that form the backbone of the tyranny to which the people of both countries suffer.

China should also empower the United Nations and its Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, to play an active role. Mr. Ban will visit Burma this week to press for political reform and the release of political prisoners. As a South Korean, he has a deep understanding of North Korea that should be deployed by the rest of the world. But without clear support from China, in public as well as in private, his efforts will fail. If China wants to be seen as a responsible global citizen, it must lead efforts to tackle the brotherhood of paranoia and repression that threatens people in both Burma and North Korea – and the rest of Asia.

Kay Seok and David Scott Mathieson are the North Korea and Burma researchers at Human Rights Watch.