Is Burma truly trying to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and produce ballistic missiles with North Korean assistance, as alleged in a controversial June documentary made by DVB and aired by al-Jazeera, or is it all poppycock, as claimed in a 12 November report by United States-based ProPublica, an award-winning US investigative journalism outfit?
The DVB report was based on testimonies from Burmese army defectors who had been scrutinized by Robert Kelley, a highly regarded former US weapons scientist and former United Nations weapons inspector. ProPublica, on the other hand, quoted an anonymous senior “American official” as saying that the US Central Intelligence Agency had reviewed Kelley’s report “line by line and had rejected its findings”.
Classified cables recently released by WikiLeaks from the US Embassy in Rangoon, however, reveal a wide discrepancy between what US officials have said in public and the concerns they raise internally about Burma’s nuclear ambitions. Judging by these leaked documents, it appears that ProPublica has fallen victim to manipulations by US officials who want to hide the true extent of the intelligence that US agencies have collected in order to enhance the political agenda of those who favour engagement over further isolation of Burma’s military regime.
The US currently imposes economic and financial sanctions against the rights-abusing regime. Long before the Barack Obama administration launched its new Burma policy and began sending emissaries to talk with the generals, other US officials had tested a similar conciliatory tack. By any measure, those diplomatic efforts completely failed. In February 1994, US congressman Bill Richardson, who later served as the US’s ambassador to the United Nations, paid a highly publicized visit to the country.
Accompanied by a New York Times correspondent, he met with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi – then under house arrest – as well as then intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt. At the time, Richardson’s visit was hailed in the press as a major “breakthrough” – although he himself was very cautious in his remarks. After a second visit to Burma in May 1995, Richardson stated at a press conference in Bangkok that his trip had been “unsuccessful, frustrating and disappointing”.
Similarly, a string of UN special envoys have for over two decades attempted and failed to engage the generals towards political change and national reconciliation. Burma’s partners in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have also long advocated a policy of “constructive engagement” with the military regime, though so far with few tangible results apart from increased trade and investment with the impoverished nation.
The WikiLeaks cables and other internal US documentation show that Washington is indeed concerned by reports of North Korea’s shadowy involvement in Burma as well as the military regime’s nuclear ambitions. Comparing the content of the recently leaked cables with what US officials and other sources apparently told ProPublica shows that expressing such concerns publicly would make it more difficult to entice Burma’s ruling generals to give up their newly established, cosy relationship with North Korea’s weapons-proliferating regime.
Burma’s close relations with North Korea’s main ally, China, is also a concern, according to US senator James Webb, a staunch advocate of the US’s new and to date ineffectual engagement policy with Burma’s military government. At a breakfast meeting with Washington defense reporters in October, Webb called on the Obama administration to be more active in Burma and engage the country’s military junta to prevent China from making Burma a full-blown client state.
Downplaying perennial human-rights concerns and dismissing the well-documented reports of Burma’s nuclear ambitions are part and parcel of this new policy departure. From the afore-mentioned breakfast meeting, Foreign Policy magazine reported on its web site on 27 October that Webb “criticized what he sees as a double standard in the administration’s approach toward human rights – and pointed to Beijing”. “When was the last time China had an election? How many political prisoners are there in China? Does anybody know? What’s the consistency here?” Foreign Policy reported. Tellingly, the November 12 ProPublica report quoted Webb as saying that the DVB report on North Korea and Burma’s nuclear ambitions “made such an [engagement] approach impossible”.
The US Embassy in Rangoon stated in a report dated 27 August 2004 – which has recently been made public by WikiLeaks – that one of their sources had said that North Korean workers were assembling surface-to-air missiles at a “military site in Magway Division” where a “concrete-reinforced underground facility” was also being constructed. An unidentified expatriate businessman had told the US Embassy that “he had seen a large barge carrying reinforced steel bar of a diameter that suggested a project larger than a factory”.
While stating that these reports could not be “definitive proof of sizable North Korean involvement with the Burmese regime… many details provided by [a confidential source] match those provided by other, seemingly unrelated sources”. According to those reports, the embassy stated in its report, Burma and North Korea “are up to something of a covert military or military-industrial nature”.
The report added that, “exactly what, and on what scale, remains to be determined” and that the embassy would continue to “monitor these developments and report as warranted”. Asia Times Online reported as early as July 2006 on North Korea’s involvement in the construction of an extensive underground complex in and around Burma’s new capital Naypyidaw.
In another internal US document made public by WikiLeaks, a local Burmese businessman reportedly offered uranium to the US Embassy in Rangoon. The offer was not linked to any North Korean activity, but nevertheless added to the mystery and speculation surrounding nuclear issues in Burma. The embassy reportedly bought it and wrote in its cable to Washington: “The individual provided a small bottle half-filled with metallic powder and a photocopied certificate of testing from a Chinese university dated 1992 as verification of the radioactive nature of the powder.”
The unnamed businessman also said that “if the US was not interested in purchasing the uranium, he and his associates would try to sell it to other countries, beginning with Thailand”. It was unclear where the alleged uranium came from, but Burma is known to have several deposits of the radioactive metal used in nuclear reactors and weapons. According to a Burmese government website, there are uranium ore deposits at five locations in the country, namely: Magway, Taungdwingyi (south of Bagan), Kyaukphygon and Paongpyin near the ruby mines at Mogok, Kyauksin, and near Myeik (or Mergui) in the country’s southeast.
Perhaps even more revealingly, according to an August 2009 report from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the US Embassy in Berlin marked “confidential” (but not included in the documents released by WikiLeaks), ambassador Susan Burk, special representative of the US president for nuclear non-proliferation, discussed “concerns about Myanmar’s nuclear intentions” in a meeting with German officials.
The DVB documentary mentioned the involvement of German companies in Burma’s alleged weapons of mass destruction programs. But, in ProPublica’s version of events, the only noteworthy event related to Germany was that “officials” had said “they were aware that Burma had bought the equipment shown in the [Burmese army] defector’s pictures [some of it was exported by German companies], but have concluded that it is not being used to launch an atomic weapons program.”
Furthermore, a UN report released in November alleged North Korea is supplying banned nuclear and ballistic missile equipment to Burma, among other countries. “China had blocked publication of the report which has been ready for six months,” AFP reported on 13 November. According to the report, drafted by experts who answer to the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee, North Korea is involved with “the surreptitious transfer of nuclear-related and ballistic missile-related equipment, know-how and technology to countries including Iran, Syria and Myanmar [Burma]”.
The UN report went on to state that suspicious nuclear activities in Burma were linked to Namchongang Trading, a state-owned North Korean company known to have been involved in nuclear activities in Iran and Syria and the arrests of three people in Japan who tried to export illegally a magnetometer to Burma through Malaysia. In reference to the disclosures by the UN experts, the Washington Times reported on 10 November: “Magnetometers can be used to produce ring magnets, a key element in centrifuges that are the basis of nuclear arms programs in Iran and Pakistan. That transfer was linked to a North Korean company involved in ‘illicit procurement’ for nuclear and military programs.”
In 2009, Namchongang and its director, Yun Ho-jin, were formally sanctioned by the UN for proliferation activities. According to a German Customs Bureau report, the company uses its offices in Beijing and Shenyang in China to place orders for the equipment, which is critical to building the centrifuges required to enrich uranium. The arrival of Namchongang Trading in Burma set off alarm bells in many Western capitals and convinced several previous sceptics of Burma’s nuclear ambitions to take the recent reports more seriously.
At the same time, US officials continue to deny that such concerns exist, as was reflected in ProPublica’s November report that cited a supposed Central Intelligence Agency assessment of the threat. ProPublica did not reply to emailed questions from Asia Times Online about its 12 November piece. But, if their source’s intention was to appease the Burmese regime, it clearly succeeded. On 5 December, the state-owned daily newspaper Kyaymon (The Mirror) ran a full translation of the ProPublica report that trashed the DVB documentary and nuclear expert Kelley’s assessment.
That response would seem to demonstrate that Burma’s secretive military regime is still in denial about its true intentions: it has repeatedly stated that it has no nuclear ambitions and that there are no North Korean technicians situated in the country. Meanwhile, Burma’s government has yet to publicly react to the recently leaked internal US documents disseminated by WikiLeaks.
However, it is now clear that there is one version of US perceptions about Burma’s nuclear ambitions crafted for public consumption and diplomatic effect, and quite another making the rounds among Washington’s security establishment. The recent disclosures of the latter cast the US’s recent engagement efforts towards Burma in a new strategic light and raise hard questions about the policy’s wisdom and sustainability.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.
The original article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 16 December 2010.