A report put out last week by former IAEA inspector Robert Kelly, on behalf of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), claims that Burma is in the process of developing a nuclear weapons program. The evidence used to compile the report includes photographs and documents smuggled out by a renegade Burmese soldier, Sai Thein Win, Deputy Commander of a highly classified military factory that was the headquarters of the army’s nuclear endeavors. Accusations of a nascent nuclear program in Burma are longstanding; however this new evidence exceeds previous unclear satellite images and uncertain reports, and should heighten concern about the program. The International Atomic Energy Agency has launched an investigation into the claims and may be in a position to confirm some of the information.
Without doubt, Burma is far from completing the project—and as an ostracized nation with a weak economy and few domestic resources, it will have trouble carrying through with it. However, the report claims the photos indicate a distinct interest in a nuclear weapons program—not a peaceful nuclear energy reactor. The evidence includes photos taken in critical facilities in Burma, including images of a vacuum glove box, used to produce uranium metal; technical drawings of a device known as a bomb-reduction vessel, which makes uranium metal for fuel rods and nuclear-weapons components; and detailed descriptions of tunnels used as command posts and storage areas for secret weapons and equipment.
The new evidence is said to complement previous knowledge about the Burmese nuclear program. The program is believed to be run by Dr. Ko Ko Oo and managed by the Directorate of Defense Services Science and Technology Research Center (DDSSTRC) and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), the former of which has been charged with building a nuclear reactor, enriching uranium, and building a nuclear weapon. The DVB report concludes that Burma, a state party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and an IAEA member, is developing nuclear technology and has full intent in building a bomb, but that it will have difficulty in doing so, and that the program is in a primitive stage.
While all of this should be taken with caution, due to the one-party source of evidence, attention should be drawn now to the possibility of a future increase of Burmese nuclear cooperation with North Korea.
In terms of their interconnectedness, a leaked report last year showed just how close the militaries of the two states have become. A photo record of Burma’s Joint Chief of Staff Thura Shwe Mann’s official trip to North Korea depicted his delegation visiting several secret locations in the DPRK, including what looks like a SCUD (Hwasong) production plant.
Long accused of using front companies and intermediaries to provide illegal weaponry to Burma, Iran and Syria, North Korea has recently been accused by the United Nations of defying a UN ban through the continued export of nuclear and missile technology, supported by false labeling of exports and shipping containers, falsification of information about the destination of goods, and use of intermediaries and financial institutions in individual trades. But while many worry about North Korea proliferating in this manner and transferring physical goods and technologies to countries such as Burma, a more immediate consequence of the DPRK nuclear program is the transfer of scientific ‘know-how.”
North Korea has thousands of nuclear scientists available for dispatch who could prove a lucrative resource for the cash-strapped regime and importantly, are infinitely harder to detect than the actual transfer of physical nuclear technology. As such, should the Burmese program carry on in its current form, Rangoon may soon look to North Korea for technical assistance personnel. Even though Burma’s current program looks to be based on an enriched uranium approach – while North Korea’s is traditionally based on reprocessed plutonium– it is important to remember that Pyongyang has experimented with uranium enrichment and dealt substantially with the A.Q. Khan network (famous for its uranium enrichment technology proliferation) during the 1990s. Consequently, North Korea is in a position to offer assistance and know-how in this area, and due to the plentiful stocks of uranium ore in its mountains, could one day be in a position to sell uranium for enrichment to Rangoon.
While a Burmese nuclear bomb is not yet in existence, recent developments indicate that we have all the more reason to keep close watch on North Korea’s clandestine behavior and Burmese actions.