Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 09:16 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 09:16 | SYDNEY

Burma and North Korea: Reality Checks

27 April 2011 15:00

Andrew Selth is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute.

Earlier this month, a conference was held in Washington to examine Burma's relationships with the two Koreas. Inevitably, the issue which attracted most attention was Pyongyang's purported assistance to Naypyidaw in the nuclear field and the possibility that this might extend to collaboration on a secret weapons program.

Unsurprisingly, the conference did not produce any dramatic new insights on this subject. Indeed, its greatest value was to provide an opportunity for some of the main participants in the current, rather heated, public debate to lay out for scrutiny and discussion the key elements of their arguments.

One of the speakers was Robert Kelley, a former IAEA inspector and the principal author of a March 2010 report on Burma's nuclear ambitions which was sponsored by the opposition Democratic Voice of Burma. Another speaker was David Albright, also a nuclear physicist and president of the respected Institute for Science and International Security.

Kelley reiterated his firm belief that Burma has a nascent nuclear program. He acknowledged that it does not seem to have advanced very far, nor is being managed very competently by the local authorities. It is therefore not an immediate military threat. Drawing mainly on information provided by a Burmese army defector, however, Kelley remains convinced that the sole purpose of this secret program is to produce nuclear weapons.

This view was strongly challenged by Albright. He allowed for the possibility that Burma was interested in acquiring nuclear technology — in itself a matter for concern — but he argued that there was still insufficient hard, verifiable evidence to claim the existence of a nuclear weapons program. To his mind, the data provided so far has been fragmentary and ambiguous, and often tainted by its association with Burmese opposition groups.

On one critical issue, Kelley and Albright were in agreement. They both pointed out that, despite clear signs of a growing defence relationship between the two countries, there was still no reliable evidence of direct North Korean assistance to Burma in the nuclear field. These comments were in stark contrast to the claims made by some activist groups, and misleading headlines in a number of prominent news outlets.

The two scientists also agreed, however, that any technical assistance provided by Pyongyang would be critical to Naypyidaw's ability to pursue a nuclear program, peaceful or otherwise.

One of the reasons why this debate continues to arouse strong feelings and why some unlikely scenarios still get an airing in the news media, is that there have been almost no authoritative statements by the IAEA or reputable government sources to clarify the picture, or to put all the competing claims into a sensible context.

The strongest official statement issued so far has been by the State Department, which reported in July 2010 that 'At this time, the United States lacks evidence to support a conclusion that Burma has violated its NPT obligations or IAEA safeguards'. Yet this report appears to have been discounted by some observers, who prefer to cite the US's oft-stated concerns about the possible implications of Burma's links with North Korea.

There are a number of developments on the horizon, however, that could see some of these uncertainties resolved, or which will at least give the public debate some perspective.

The first is the likely Senate confirmation later this year of President Obama's special envoy for Burma, Derek Mitchell . Such an appointment is required under the 2008 Burmese JADE Act, through which Congress sought to pressure the Bush Administration into taking tougher measures against Naypyidaw. The envoy's stated role includes a range of activities designed to 'restore civilian democratic rule to Burma' but he will also be responsible for coordinating US policy and consulting other countries on the issue.

Secondly, it was revealed at the Washington conference that one of the special envoy's first tasks will be to address the longstanding requirement — also stemming from the JADE Act — for the US government to issue a formal statement listing all those countries and entities which provide Burma with 'military or intelligence aid'. Specifically covered by this clause is any provision of weapons of mass destruction and related materials, technologies, training and equipment.

Thirdly, a resolution has just been introduced into the US Senate by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Dick Lugar. It carefully notes (but does not confirm) 'reports that the Governments of North Korea and Burma are collaborating on matters relating to the development of Burma's nuclear program'. The resolution calls upon the US Government to provide Congress with an unclassified report on the volume of ships and planes from North Korea which have visited Burma since 2009.

Taken together, these three developments hold out the promise of more reliable data and greater clarity about the US Government's views regarding Burma's relationship with North Korea — including the complex problem of Naypyidaw's nuclear ambitions. This is to be welcomed, for the public debate sorely needs an informed and objective official view to balance the more sensationalist stories that periodically appear on this subject.

Even so, as the conference attendees were reminded earlier this month, Burma and North Korea are challenging intelligence targets and reliable information on both countries is still very difficult to obtain. Regardless of any public statements by the US, a number of critical questions are likely to remain unanswered. Also, Burma's interest in nuclear technology and its relationship with North Korea will remain emotive and highly politicised issues.

These factors alone will ensure that a wide range of claims and counter claims will continue to be heard on this vexed issue for the foreseeable future.

Photo of a claimed reactor in Burma, the site has since proven innocuous.