YANGON, Aug 10 (Reuters) - North Korean trade officials visited Myanmar this week to discuss a possible deal to import Burmese rice to ease major food shortages at home, a government official said on Wednesday.
A meeting was held on Tuesday in the country’s biggest city, Yangon, but the terms of the agreement and how North Korea planned to pay for the rice were not known, the official told Reuters, requesting anonymity.
A North Korea-flagged cargo ship named Tumangang has been docked in the port city since Monday. Witnesses and a Reuters photographer said the vessel appeared empty and no cargo was seen being loaded or unloaded.
Myanmar was once the world’s biggest rice exporter and has shipped 450,000 tonnes of the grain so far this year, up from 440,000 tonnes for the whole of 2010. It exported 1.1 million tonnes in 2009, mostly to markets in Africa and the Middle East.
Its rice could be vital to North Korea, an impoverished, isolated nation that rarely produces enough food to feed its 24 million people, often as a result of bad weather affecting harvests.
International sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme combined with neighbouring South Korea’s refusal to provide help have led to a substantial decline in food aid from its traditional donors.
North Korea has started to seek out new suppliers. A delegation from Pyongyang visited Cambodia two weeks ago to discuss a deal to import its rice, but officials from both countries refused to disclose details.
However, a Cambodian minister said North Korea had offered to provide agricultural machinery to Cambodia, suggesting a barter agreement may have been discussed.
The Burmese official said the North Koreans who visited Yangon on Tuesday dealt directly with the military-owned Myanma Economic Holding Ltd (MEHL), one of the country’s biggest firms. MEHL enjoys a monopoly of many of the country’s most lucrative import and export produce.
A senior member of from the Myanmar Chambers of Federation of Commerce and Industry said it was likely North Korea would try to import more than just rice, noting that it previously bought Burmese rubber.
Ties between the two reclusive countries were restored in 2007 after a 24-year freeze that followed the failed assassination attempt by North Korea agents on then South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan during a visit to Myanmar.
The revived ties have worried the United States, which believes Myanmar’s military has sought to develop its own nuclear weapons technology using North Korean expertise.
Scientists in Myanmar have been involved in nuclear experiments but the government insists it is for peaceful purposes, a claim Burmese defectors and weapons experts reject. (Editing by Martin Petty and Miral Fahmy)