Myanmar’s N. Korean ties escape scrutiny

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Avner Cohen, a nonproliferation specialist and senior research scholar at the University of Maryland, said it makes sense for North Korea to be aiding efforts by other countries, including Myanmar, to develop a nuclear program, because that helps to maintain and improve Pyongyang’s own expertise.

“Beyond the financial reasons, what happens to your manpower if you dismantle your own nuclear program?” he said in reference to a process the North Koreans began a couple of years ago as part of an agreement reached in six-nation talks. “You can keep your expertise alive and your people employed in projects abroad. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case with Burma.”

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, agreed that it “would not be at all surprising if North Korea was in fact involved in a secret nuclear effort,” but he said it makes little sense for the Burmese to be developing such a program.

“No one is threatening Burma’s security for them to need a deterrent,” Mr. Kimball said. “In fact, they would be inviting a threat if they were trying to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability.”

Burmese exiles and political dissidents have been remarking on the junta’s nuclear ambitions for some time. The Irrawaddy newsmagazine has reported that the civilian government that preceded the junta designated a site for a nuclear-research reactor in the capital, Yangon, but these plans were discarded after the 1962 military coup. Since 2000, Russia has been collaborating with Myanmar on a low-grade, civilian-use reactor, under IAEA auspices.

North Korea, meanwhile, has a track record of illicit nuclear proliferation. In 2007, Israel destroyed what appeared to be the beginnings of a North Korean-built reactor in Syria.

“We do know that North Korea is willing to sell nuclear technology under the table to countries like Syria that skirt the rules on making full declarations to the IAEA,” Ms. Squassoni said. “This alone warrants a lot more attention to what the junta might be purchasing or negotiating for, and what they are saying about any future nuclear capabilities.”

Andrew Selth, an Australian specialist and author of “Burma and Nuclear Proliferation: Policies and Perceptions,” wrote recently on the Lowy Institute for International Policy blog that “there are many unanswered questions about Burma’s nuclear aspirations and its ties with North Korea.”

“The most pressing question for many analysts, however, is why no government or international organization has made any official statement on this issue,” he wrote.

Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, speculated that the U.S. was loath to publicize the dispute until the release of two American reporters jailed in North Korea. The two were freed after former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang last week.

Myanmar’s neighbors also have been slow to react to the reports of illicit nuclear activity. Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told The Washington Times that “the case against Myanmar must be proven, and the IAEA can assess this.”

Burmese dissidents are impatient.

Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said: “The world should not wait until they see the solid proof of the relations between North Korea and the Burmese regime and their nuclear conspiracy.”

Nicholas Kralev in Washington contributed to this report.

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