N Korea-Burma nuke fears grow

Burma and North Korea may be working together on nuclear related-activities, according to several secret US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

The leaked cables add to ongoing concerns that Burma is starting a nuclear weapons programme. According to one cable, sent in August 2009, a “Burmese official” told the Australia’s ambassador to Burma, Michelle Chan, that the Burma-North Korea connection “is not just about conventional weapons”, but involves a “peaceful nuclear component” for generating electricity for the country.

The cable, headed ‘BURMESE OFFICIAL CONFIRMS BURMA-DPRK “PEACEFUL” NUCLEAR COOPERATION’ claims that a separate agreement Burma have with Russia is just for “software, training”, whereas the Pyongyang agreement is for “hardware.”

But a second cable from November 2009 indicated that the same Burmese official later “changed [his] story” after Chan apparently responded with “incredulity” to the idea that nuclear cooperation of any sort with North Korea is acceptable. It adds that, having “checked around” Burma’s capital, Naypyidaw, the official concluded that conversations between North Korea and Burma were merely “exploratory.”

An  agreement in 2001 between Burma and Russia saw plans for Russia to sell Burma a 10 megawatt nuclear research reactor and train specialists in nuclear technology.

Russia’s nuclear energy body, ROSATOM, announced the deal in 2007, but due to financial and legal issues – namely that Burma would have to sign the “Additional Protocol” allowing the IAEA access to its nuclear facilities – the reactor was never delivered.

This has raised speculation that Burma may have begun to try and build their own reactor, or buy one from a country less likely to raise objections if it did not sign the treaty.

The cable reveals that Chan concluded the Burmese official was simply speculating when he first mentioned the nature of Burma’s relationship with North Korea, and had corrected himself. However, the US believes the “revision sounds more like an effort to cover a lapse in judgment than to deny the earlier story outright”.

Other cables regarding both nuclear issues and relations with North Korea add to the concerns about the country alliances. One written in 2004 reveals North Korean cooperation in helping to assemble surface-to-air missiles and constructing an underground facility in Magway division in Burma.

Although the author of the cable, the US embassy in Rangoon’s Charge d’Affaires, Ron Macmillan, treats the information with caution as a “second-hand account” of North Korean involvement, he acknowledges that it “ generally tracks with other information” the US has been receiving from various channels.

Furthermore, he advises that, considered alongside other information, it indicates  “the Burmese and North Koreans are up to something, something of a covert military or military-industrial nature.”

A second 2004 cable speculates on rumours that a nuclear reactor was being built near Minbu in Magwe division, and concludes that despite a lack of direct evidence, “rumours of ongoing construction of a nuclear reactor” and “alleged sightings of North Korean ‘technicians’ inside Burma” are surprisingly consistent.

America’s concerned about Burma’s growing ties with North Korea is not a revelation, although so far evidence linking North Korea directly with a nuclear programme in Burma is weak.

In July 2009 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed anxiety about nuclear links between the two countries, and in June this year US senator Jim Webb cancelled a trip to Burma after a documentary and report by DVB revealing substantial evidence of a nuclear programme.

The report, written by nuclear scientist Robert Kelley, concluded that although evidence points to Burma trying to develop a nuclear programme, “success may be beyond Burma’s reach”. Kelley warned however that with the help of another country that does have the knowledge, “this programme could really speed up”.

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