The Soviet Union used to be described jokingly as a "Third World country with atomic bombs." But the spread of nuclear weapons in the developing world is no joke.
Burma is the latest case. In 2007, the military junta that runs the country confirmed that it was developing a 10-megawatt nuclear reactor with Russian help, claiming the program was for peaceful uses only. But according to reports last week in the Australian press based on defector testimony, the military government maintains a secret underground weapons complex at Naung Laing in the mountainous northern part of the country. Burma, which its leaders call Myanmar, could be ready to build a bomb in less than five years.
The junta's reported accomplice in this venture is North Korea. Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed official concern about deepening military cooperation between the two countries. In June 2009, the U.S. Navy shadowed the Burma-bound North Korean freighter Kang Nam I, which was suspected of carrying illegal weapons components. The ship ultimately turned back. The same month, Bangkok-based Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner published photos of North Koreans excavating secret tunnels in the new Burmese capital of Naypyidaw and elsewhere. Burma purportedly is trading yellowcake uranium to North Korea and Iran in exchange for nuclear expertise, though the details are sketchy at this point.
The strategic rationale for a Burmese bomb is questionable -- defense against Thailand, apparently -- but the political rationale is ironclad. Nuclear capability would solidify the junta's rule against any countries upset over its dismal human rights record, black-market activities and narcotics dealing. And given the reluctance of the international community to take effective action against nuclear proliferators, prospects for a nuclear Burma look good. Since the failure to find an operational program to develop weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, no country other than Israel has demonstrated the resolve to engage in active nuclear counterproliferation. The message to the world, as North Korea has demonstrated, is that even the poorest and most backward countries can become nuclear powers if they want to.
The spread of nuclear weapons into the developing world is cause for alarm. The more of them there are, the less control will be possible. Security would be questionable, and the likelihood would increase that non-state groups would be able to obtain weapons to conduct terror attacks or engage in nuclear blackmail. Those who believe that deterrence alone can keep a lid on nuclear weapons should look into the beliefs of superstitious junta leader Gen. Than Shwe. Astrology reportedly plays a key role in his decision-making. For example, he moved the capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw on Nov. 11, 2005, at 11 a.m. in 1,100 trucks carrying 11 government ministries. This is not someone who should have his finger on the nuclear trigger.
So Burma is in the nuclear game. Iran could soon have a weapon. Will Venezuela be next? Or Cuba? Syria? We wonder how many small, potentially unstable and habitually unfriendly states will have to achieve nuclear capability before the United States gets serious about countering nuclear proliferation.