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
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
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
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.