Myanmar's Links With Pyongyang Stir Nuclear Fears Skip to main content

Myanmar's Links With Pyongyang Stir Nuclear Fears

WASHINGTON—The United Nations' nuclear watchdog has written to Myanmar's military government in recent weeks asking to visit sites in the Southeast Asian country allegedly involved in clandestine nuclear activities, according to officials briefed on the correspondence.
Associated Press
North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun hitting the great bell as he visits Myanmar's Shwedagon Pagoda in July.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's action comes amid rising fears in Washington and Asian capitals that Myanmar's generals have significantly increased their military cooperation with North Korea, possibly on nuclear technologies, as well as on long-range missiles and underground bunkers.
Concerns about North Korea's nuclear activities have heightened in recent weeks, as Pyongyang unveiled to a visiting American scientist thousands of new centrifuge machines used for enriching uranium. The Obama administration worries this machinery could be used by North Korea to produce more atomic weapons, but also could be sold to third countries such as Myanmar for hard currency.
U.S. officials have charged Myanmar, also called Burma, with being a key transshipment point for North Korean arms going to countries such as Iran and Syria. Washington has interdicted a number of North Korean ships and cargo planes in recent years that were allegedly moving missile parts and small arms through Myanmar's waters and airspace.

Suspect Sites

The IAEA's Department of Safeguards, headed by Belgian Herman Nackaerts, wrote the letter to Myanmar's government seeking to visit suspect sites, according to these officials. It follows at least two other letters the IAEA has written to Myanmar in recent months, seeking clarification of its alleged efforts to develop nuclear technologies at sites in the country's north.
"[The IAEA] is now officially asking for a visit," said one of the officials briefed on the letter.
Myanmar is a signatory to the U.N.'s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has a limited cooperation agreement with the IAEA focused on developing nuclear science. But the U.N. agency has only limited powers to demand access to Myanmar: the country has no declared nuclear facilities.
If Myanmar doesn't cooperate, it is likely to face more international pressure. The Obama administration has pressed Myanmar's military junta to cooperate with agency inspectors.
Myanmar's mission to the U.N. declined this week to comment on the IAEA request. The government has previously denied that it has any nuclear program or military cooperation with North Korea.
"No activity related to uranium conversion, enrichment, reactor construction or operation has been carried out in the past, is ongoing or is planned for the future," Myanmar state media quoted the country's ambassador to the IAEA, Win Tin, as writing to the agency in June.
In May, a former IAEA safeguards inspector, Robert Kelley, wrote a detailed report arguing that Myanmar was building factories north of its cultural capital, Mandalay, focused on producing nuclear fuel.
His report was based on the testimony of a former Burmese military officer and documents compiled by a dissident group, the Democratic Voice of Burma. Mr. Kelley argued that the photographs and satellite imagery were consistent and indicated that Myanmar was building factories to convert uranium ore into a powder form, known as yellowcake, then into uranium hexafluoride for enrichment, and finally into uranium metal. Uranium metal when fitted onto a warhead and detonated can create the fissile reaction of an atomic weapon.
"Burma is developing uranium processing equipment in secret that could legally be developed in the open if reported to the IAEA," Mr. Kelley said in an interview. "A secret program must only be for weapons."
Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables recently published by the website WikiLeaks document concerns inside successive American administrations about Myanmar's weapons programs and alleged cooperation with North Korea.
The documents recount meetings between U.S. diplomats and Myanmar-based businessmen who detail suspicious shipments they believe were materials being used to build a nuclear reactor. Another cable recounts sightings of roughly 300 North Korean workers who were allegedly building missile installations inside mountains in north-central Myanmar.
"Something is certainly happening; whether that something includes 'nukes' is a very open question which remains a very high priority for Embassy reporting," reads a cable written in November 2009 by the State Department's top diplomat in Yangon.
A number of proliferation experts and former IAEA staff have expressed skepticism about the prospect of Myanmar pursuing nuclear weapons.
They say much of the equipment allegedly being procured by Myanmar could have nonnuclear applications. They also said that testimony provided by Burmese defectors needs to be closely scrutinized, as many have political grudges against the Myanmar government. They note that much of the intelligence provided by Iraqi dissidents concerning Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons programs proved to be wrong.
"North Korea has been trying to sell missiles to Myanmar for some years...but there's no clear evidence of a nuclear program," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former nonproliferation official in the State Department who is now at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Still, Mr. Fitzpatrick and other proliferation experts are pressing the IAEA to conduct intrusive inspections as a means to clear up the heightened uncertainty surrounding Myanmar's activities. They said that, even if the country isn't pursuing a nuclear program, its alleged pursuit of missile systems and other weapons capabilities could be extremely destabilizing for Asia.
Write to Jay Solomon at 


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