There is no hard evidence that two of the world’s pariah states are sharing nuclear technology, but one US expert says some of Myanmar’s activities raise suspicions of such links with North Korea.
After years of rumours, the issue hit the headlines this week when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised fears of possible nuclear and other military cooperation between Stalinist North Korea and military-ruled Myanmar.
“We know that there are growing concerns about military cooperation between North Korea and Burma, which we take very seriously,” Clinton said after talks with Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, using Myanmar’s former name.
Clinton, visiting Thailand for Thursday’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum on security, also told the country’s Nation TV that “we worry about the transfer of nuclear technology.”
Suspicions of military links grew after a US navy destroyer last month began tracking a suspect North Korean ship reportedly heading for Myanmar. The cargo ship later turned back.
The Kang Nam 1 was the first ship to be shadowed since the UN Security Council in June slapped tougher sanctions on the North to try to shut down its nuclear and missile programmes.
The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) has for years been watching for signs of nuclear projects in Myanmar.
“We have found no evidence of work by Burma on any major nuclear projects ... but we are suspicious about some of Burma’s activities,” its president David Albright told AFP in emailed comments.
Albright cited the presence in Myanmar for at least the past two years of North Korea’s Namchongang Trading Corp. (NCG), or people associated with the company.
NCG was the key North Korean entity assisting a Syrian reactor project that was bombed by Israel in 2007, Albright said. It was one of five North Korean entities targeted in another round of UN sanctions last week.
One Seoul-based analyst said it could make sense for Myanmar to get into the nuclear business. “Myanmar would feel the temptation to get nuclear weapons to enhance the prestige of the military junta and fend off international pressure over its human rights,” said Jeung Young-Tae of the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Myanmar’s purchases of dual-use equipment including machine tools from Europe in 2006 and 2007 raised suspicions, Albright said. “The end-use declarations are inconsistent and the equipment ... is odd for Burma to acquire. However, its potential use is hard to determine,” he said.
Albright also cited Myanmar’s past interest in buying a reactor from Russia. The project stalled due to foreign protests and supposed lack of money, raising the possibility that it may turn to North Korea. Concrete evidence is lacking.
“Over the last two years, we have analysed many photos of sites acquired by opposition groups, but we found that none of them had any convincing nuclear signatures despite the claims of these groups,” Albright said.
Baek Seung-Joo, of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses, said the Southeast Asian state has no particular reason to crave such technology. “It has no hostile nuclear-armed neighbours. It has no direct threats from China, India or Pakistan.”
However, Baek said Myanmar has a strong need for the North’s conventional military equipment. Indications of a Yangon link to the North’s lucrative missile business emerged in June when Japanese police arrested three men for trying to export dual-use equipment to Myanmar via Malaysia.
The equipment, a magnetometer, can be used in missile guidance and control systems. Daniel Pinkston, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Myanmar seems to lack the human resources to run a nuclear programme and there is no hard evidence of one.
“If it is starting at a very low level of development, North Korea could provide a lot of help covering the basics and training personnel,” he said. “The most important thing in any nuclear programme is the human resources.”