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.
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.