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 rumors, the issue hit the headlines this week when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised fears of possible nuclear and other military cooperation between North Korea and 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 Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Clinton also told Thailand’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 slapped tougher sanctions on the North last month to try to shut down its nuclear and missile programs.
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 said in e-mailed 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 by new 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.
Concrete evidence is lacking.
“Over the last two years, we have analyzed 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 Defense Analyses, said Myanmar has no particular reason to crave such technology because “It has no hostile nuclear-armed neighbors. 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 last month 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.