South Korean President Lee Myung-bak arrived in Myanmar’s old capital Yangon on Tuesday for a meeting with the country’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on the second day of a landmark visit to the Southeast Asian nation.
Lee is expected to appreciate Suu Kyi’s decades-long fight for democracy while stressing that South Korea will continue to work together with the international community to improve Myanmar’s democracy and human rights, the presidential office said.
After the meeting, the two are scheduled to speak at a news conference.
Suu Kyi has been a symbol of Myanmar’s democracy movement. Military rulers have repeatedly put her into house arrest, considering her a threat to their autocratic rule. She spent much of the past 20 years under house arrest and was last released in late 2010.
Lee is the first South Korean president to visit Myanmar, previously known as Burma, in 29 years since North Korea’s 1983 terrorist bombing that ripped through a Yangon memorial and killed 17 South Koreans, including Cabinet ministers.
The landmark trip came as Myanmar has won international praise for taking a series of sweeping political and economic reform measures since the country’s new government of general-turned-President Thein Sein took power last year after decades of military rule.
On Monday, Lee held summit talks with Sein, where the Myanmar leader agreed to free a North Korean defector detained in the country for illegal border crossing, and promised to abide by a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at ending Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
The agreement suggests that Myanmar, once lumped by the U.S. as part of an “axis of evil” or “outpost of tyranny” along with North Korea and others, will distance itself from Pyongyang as it opens up to the outside world with democratic reforms.
Lee offered to expand grants and development loans to Myanmar and carry out a string of programs to share South Korea’s economic development experience. The sides also agreed to expand cooperation in energy and resources development, and infrastructure construction in Myanmar.
Lee’s trip is seen as an effort by South Korea to reach out to an underdeveloped nation with rich natural resources and growth potential. About three times the size of the Korean Peninsula, the country has one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves and big deposits of iron ore, zinc, nickel and other mineral resources.
Myanmar is also considered a strategic foothold linking huge markets in nearby China and India. Though one of the world’s poorest nations, with the annual per capita income of US$ 700, Myanmar has a high literacy rate and could provide cheap, but quality labor for companies.