Myanmar’s N. Korean ties escape scrutiny

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BANGKOK | Governments and international bodies have been slow to act over the possibility that two of the world’s most repressive regimes - North Korea and Myanmar - are collaborating on nuclear technology.

A report earlier this month by an Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, said that Myanmar, also known as Burma, is building a secret nuclear reactor and plutonium facility in caves tunneled into a mountain at Naung Laing in the northern part of the country.

The facilities are close to a civilian reactor under construction by Russia that is inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the newspaper said. It cited two Burmese defectors as the source of the information about the secret program.

While the reports have not yet been verified, a Burmese internal military report leaked to Irrawaddy newsmagazine, a Burmese exile publication, said North Korea has been helping the Myanmar junta build a network of tunnels to serve as air-raid shelters in the event of civil unrest or foreign invasion.

Burmese military officials have visited North Korea since the two countries re-established diplomatic relations in 2007. In June, the U.S. Navy trailed the North Korean freighter Kang Nam I, which appeared to be en route to Myanmar. It turned back before reaching its destination, generating speculation that its cargo included sensitive military technology.

“It’s frightening to contemplate nuclear cooperation between two military dictatorships, especially when the intentions and capabilities of the recipient … in this case are so murky,” said Sharon Squassoni, senior associate in the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Asked about Myanmar, the IAEA - the U.N. nuclear watchdog - stated that “Myanmar is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and thus has concluded a safeguards agreement with the IAEA with a small-quantities protocol, which is designed for states that have little or no nuclear material and no nuclear material in facilities. Based on this agreement, it would be expected to inform the IAEA no later than six months prior to operating a nuclear facility.”

Ms. Squassoni said that if Myanmar “truly has peaceful nuclear intentions, it should invite observers in for a full tour, join the Proliferation Security Initiative and sign an Additional Protocol with the IAEA, which would enhance inspections.”

The security initiative groups about 100 nations that have agreed to stop and search ships and planes suspected of carrying nuclear materials or missile parts. The Additional Protocol allows the IAEA to conduct short-notice inspections of nuclear facilities.

Myanmar is unlikely to take such steps, however, which means that the issue may be headed to the U.N. Security Council.

Given that China wields a veto on the council - and that China is a major investor in Myanmar - the chances for U.N. action appear slim.

U.S. officials have been circumspect.

At a recent Asian security meeting in Thailand, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “We worry about the transfer of nuclear technology from North Korea to Myanmar.”

However, U.S. authorities have not confirmed or denied the reports in the Australian press, which speculated that the junta was trading yellowcake, a type of uranium used in the enrichment process, for North Korean military hardware and technical expertise.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood on Thursday repeated the concerns raised by Mrs. Clinton, but declined to say whether Washington was seriously looking into the Australian report.

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