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Burma, North Korea and the nuclear question

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In Brief

For the past ten years, Burma has been accused of trying to acquire a nuclear weapon. A number of developments during this period — notably Burma’s growing relationship with North Korea — have raised international concerns. Yet, to date, no hard evidence of such a plan has been produced.

Claims of a secret nuclear weapons program date back to 2000, when Burma’s military government announced that it was going to purchase a small research reactor from Russia. These accusations were repeated in 2003, when it was suggested by a respected news magazine that North Korea had taken over from Russia as the source of Burma’s nuclear technology.


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In the years that followed, the issue surfaced periodically on activist websites, but in August 2009 it attracted global attention when a story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) citing ANU Professor Des Ball and the Thai-based journalist Phil Thornton.

The SMH claimed that there were in fact two nuclear projects running in Burma. The first was the Russian research centre, which was to be operated under international safeguards. (Contrary to the SMH story, construction of this reactor has not yet begun). The second was said to be a secret project to build a reactor and associated nuclear fuel processing plants with North Korean help. According to the SMH, if all went according to plan Burma would have a nuclear weapon by 2014 and ‘a handful’ of such devices by 2020. The main sources for these claims were two Burmese ‘defectors’ and commercial imagery of suspect facilities in Burma.

Needless to say, such claims have been the subject of close scrutiny by the US and other governments. There have also been comprehensive studies of the issue by independent think tanks like the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.

The US government has expressed its concern about the defence ties that appear to have developed between Burma and North Korea over the past decade. These links reportedly include the sale of conventional arms to Burma, North Korean help with the development of Burma’s defence infrastructure (including the construction of various underground facilities), assistance to Burma’s arms industries, and training in fields like air defence. In 2004, the US successfully blocked the sale of some North Korean short-range ballistic missiles to Burma.

The Obama Administration has also stated its wish to discuss a number of proliferation issues with Burma, including the possible transfer of nuclear technology from North Korea. Significantly, however, at no time has the US government stated that Burma is attempting to develop a nuclear weapon, with or without North Korean help. Indeed, despite considerable pressure from members of Congress, activists and journalists, Washington has refused to be drawn on the subject. Its position seems to reflect either a belief that Burma does not have a secret nuclear weapons program, or a lack of hard evidence to support such a claim.

This approach has been shared by other countries, including the UK and Australia, both of which have referred only to ‘unconfirmed’ reports of a secret nuclear program. For their part, the IISS and ISIS have both stated that there is insufficient evidence to support the claims made by journalists, activists and others. The IISS, for example, said in late 2009 that ‘[Burma] has no known capabilities that would lend themselves to a nuclear weapons program’. ISIS wrote this April that ‘Despite the public reports to the contrary, the military junta does not appear close to establishing a significant nuclear capability’.

Even so, both governments and think tanks remain suspicious of Burma’s intentions, and point to a number of factors which they believe warrant continuing close attention.

Of all Southeast Asian countries, Burma has the strongest strategic rationale for a nuclear weapons program. Since the abortive pro-democracy uprising in 1988, the military government has feared armed intervention by the US and its allies. The regime has also suffered from economic sanctions and other punitive measures. Burma’s generals envy North Korea’s ability to resist such pressures and still win concessions from the international community. They reportedly believe that this influence derives from Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons.

In addition, Burma has for some years been working closely with two North Korean trading entities that have a record of proliferating sensitive nuclear and missile technologies. Also, Burma has imported a number of sophisticated machines and items of dual-use equipment from Europe and Japan that could conceivably be used in a nuclear program. The number of Burmese sent to Russia for nuclear-related training seems to be more than that required for a peaceful research program. Furthermore, some of the claims made by the ‘defectors’ are plausible.

None of these factors in themselves prove that Burma has embarked on a nuclear weapons program. There are other possible explanations for developments over the past decade. After the mistakes of the Iraq war, no government wants to rush to judgment, based on incomplete or unverified intelligence. Having been caught napping a few years ago, however, when it was discovered that Syria was building a reactor with North Korean help, the international community is now looking carefully for hard evidence of a secret Burmese nuclear program.

Andrew Selth is a Research Fellow at Griffith Asia Institute.

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