Nuclear bond for North Korea and Myanmar
By Norman Robespierre
YANGON – A recent flurry of high-level contacts between North Korea and Myanmar raises new nuclear proliferation concerns between the two pariah states, one of which already possesses nuclear-weapon capabilities and the other possibly aspiring.
At least three delegations led by flag-level officers from Myanmar’s army have traveled to Pyongyang in the past three months, hot on the heels of the two sides’ re-establishment last year of formal diplomatic relations. According to a source familiar with the travel itineraries of Myanmar officials, Brigadier General Aung Thein Lin visited North Korea in mid-September.
Before that, other Myanmar military delegations visited North Korea, including a group headed in August by Lieutenant General Tin Aye, chief of the Office of Chief Defense Industries, and another led in July by Lieutenant General Myint Hlaing, the chief of Air Defence.
The rapid-fire visits have gone beyond goodwill gestures and the normal diplomatic niceties of re-establishing ties. Rather, the personalities involved in the visits indicate that Myanmar is not only seeking weapons procurements, but also probable cooperation in establishing air defense weaponry, missiles, rockets or artillery production facilities.
The secretive visits are believed to entail a Myanmar quest for tunneling technology and possible assistance in developing its nascent nuclear program. Tin Aye and Myint Hlaing, by virtue of their positions as lieutenant generals, are logical choices to head official delegations in search of weapons technology for Myanmar’s military, while Brigadier General Aung Thein Lin, current mayor of Yangon and chairman of the city’s development committee, was formerly deputy minister of Industry-2, responsible for all industrial development in the country.
Prior to 1998, the minister of Industry-2 also served as the chairman of the Myanmar Atomic Energy Committee. This came to an end when Myanmar’s Atomic Energy Act of 1998 designated the Ministry of Science and Technology as the lead government agency for its aspirant nuclear program. However, the Ministry of Industry-2, by virtue of its responsibilities for construction of industrial facilities and the provision of equipment, continues to play a key supporting role in Myanmar’s nuclear program.
Myanmar’s stagnant nuclear program was revitalized shortly after Pakistan’s first detonation of nuclear weapons in May 1998. Senior general and junta leader Than Shwe signed the Atomic Energy Law on June 8, 1998, and the timing of the legislation so soon after Pakistan’s entry into the nuclear club did little to assuage international concerns about Myanmar’s nuclear intentions. Some analysts believe the regime may eventually seek nuclear weapons for the dual purpose of international prestige and strategic deterrence.
Myanmar’s civilian-use nuclear ambitions made global headlines in early 2001, when Russia’s Atomic Energy Committee indicated it was planning to build a research reactor in the country. The following year, Myanmar’s deputy foreign minister, Khin Maung Win, publicly announced the regime’s decision to build a nuclear research reactor, citing the country’s difficulty in importing radio-isotopes and the need for modern technology as reasons for the move.
The country reportedly sent hundreds of soldiers for nuclear training in Russia that same year and the reactor was scheduled for delivery in 2003. However, the program was shelved due to financial difficulties and a formal contract for the reactor, under which Russia agreed to build a nuclear research center along with a 10 megawatt reactor, was not signed until May 2007.
The reactor will be fueled with non-weapons grade enriched uranium-235 and it will operate under the purview of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog. The reactor itself would be ill-suited for weapons development. However, the training activities associated with it would provide the basic knowledge required as a foundation for any nuclear weapons development program outside of the research center.
The United States’ reaction to Myanmar’s nuclear developments has been somewhat constrained, despite the George W Bush administration referring to the military-run country as an “outpost of tyranny”.
After Myanmar’s 2002 confirmation of its intent to build the reactor, the US warned the country of its obligations as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). After the contract was formally announced in May 2007, the US State Department expressed concerns about the country’s lack of adequate safety standards and the potential for proliferation.
The warming and growing rapport between Myanmar and North Korea will likely further heighten Washington’s proliferation concerns. Myanmar broke off diplomatic relations with Pyongyang in 1983, after North Korean agents bombed the Martyr’s mausoleum in Yangon in an attempt to assassinate the visiting South Korean president, Chun Doo-hwan.
The explosion killed more than 20 people, mostly South Korean officials, including the deputy prime minister and the foreign minister, and the South Korean ambassador to Myanmar. Four Myanmar nationals perished and dozens more were wounded in the blast. Myanmar severed ties with North Korea after an investigation revealed the three agents responsible for planting the bomb spent the night at a North Korean diplomat’s house before setting out on their mission.
However, common interests have brought the two secretive nations back together. The famine in North Korea in the late 1990s and Myanmar’s military expansion ambitions, including a drive for self-sufficiency in production, have fostered recent trade flows. While Myanmar has the agricultural surplus to ease North Korean hunger, Pyongyang possesses the weapons and technological know-how needed to boost Yangon’s military might. There is also speculation Myanmar might provide uranium, mined in remote and difficult-to-monitor areas, to North Korea.
As testament to Pyongyang’s willingness to supply weapons to the military regime, more North Korean ship visits have been noted at Thilawa port in Yangon, one of the country’s primary receipt points for military cargo. During one of these visits in May 2007, two Myanmar nationals working for Japan’s News Network were detained outside Yangon while covering a suspected arms delivery by a North Korean vessel.
Growing bilateral trade has helped to heal old diplomatic wounds and eventually led to a joint communique re-establishing diplomatic relations in April 2007. The emerging relationship is also a natural outgrowth of the ostracism each faces in the international arena, including the economic sanctions imposed and maintained against them by the West.
While it is possible the recent visits are related to Myanmar’s nascent nuclear program, the evidence is far from conclusive. Nevertheless, Myanmar has undoubtedly taken notice of the respect that is accorded to North Korea on the world stage because of its nuclear weapon status. Unlike North Korea, Myanmar is a signatory to the NPT.
Myanmar has publicly stated it seeks nuclear technology only for peaceful purposes, such as developing radio-isotopes for agricultural use and medical research. Yet two well-placed sources told this reporter that North Korean and Iranian technicians were already advising Myanmar on a possible secret nuclear effort, running in parallel to the aboveboard Russia-supported program. Asia Times Online could not independently confirm the claim.
The lack of participation by Myanmar’s Ministry of Science and Technology in the recent trips to Pyongyang would seem to indicate that nuclear developments were probably not the primary focus of the high-level meetings. The regime is also known to be interested in North Korea’s tunneling technology (see Myanmar and North Korea share a tunnel vision, Asia Times Online, July 19, 2006) in line with the ruling junta’s siege mentality and apparent fears of a possible US-led pre-emptive military attack.
The junta and others have no doubt noted the extraordinary problems tunneling and cave complexes have caused US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the success North Korea has enjoyed in hiding underground its nuclear facilities. Bunkers are rumored to underlie several buildings at Naypyidaw, where the regime abruptly moved the national capital in 2005. The ongoing construction of a second capital, for the hot season, at Yadanapon, is also believed to have tunnels and bunkers integrated into its layout.
Whether the visits are related to arms procurement, military industrial development, tunneling technology or nuclear exchange, they foreshadow a potentially dangerous trend for Myanmar’s non-nuclear Southeast Asian neighbors and their Western allies, including the US.
As the true nature of the budding bilateral relationship comes into closer view, the risk is rising that Pyongyang and Yangon are conspiring to create a security quandary in Southeast Asia akin to the one now vexing the US and its allies on the Korean Peninsula.
Norman Robespierre, a pseudonym, is a freelance journalist specializing in Sino-Asian affairs.