Home > Myanmar, North Korea > North Korea Could Help Myanmar Obtain Nuke Tech, Expert Says

North Korea Could Help Myanmar Obtain Nuke Tech, Expert Says

April 13, 2011


Myanmar could create systems for nuclear weapons with North Korean support, but the Southeast Asian state has yet to build such equipment, former International Atomic Energy Agency official Robert Kelley said on Monday (see GSN, April 11).

The nation possesses multiple facilities it might tap for uranium enrichment, the Yonhap News Agency quoted Kelley as saying. The enrichment process can produce civilian as well as weapons material.

The facilities incorporate German equipment, said Kelley, now a fellow with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

“When the Germans are inspecting, the factories appear to be civilian,” he said. “But when they are gone, the same machine tools are being used by military personnel to make equipment for missiles and the nuclear fuel cycle.”

Myanmar has pursued “efforts to develop gas centrifuges,” the former official said during an event in Washington, referring to photographs taken from space as well as statements by former nuclear workers and others who have fled the state.

Products of the Burmese sites were “poor, especially for high-tech activities such as missile and nuclear facilities,” Kelley said. Still, Myanmar could be capable of developing nuclear weapons systems, he added.

“All experts judge that many of these efforts will be unsuccessful and beyond Burma’s reach,” he said. “So the program is not an immediate military threat, unless there are big changes. These would include support from another country such as D.P.R.K. and a shift to more useful technologies such as gas centrifuges. And Burma has a chance of eventually succeeding, still probably only with outside help.”

The United States pressed Myanmar to comply with international restrictions imposed in 2009 on North Korean weapons deals and other transactions after North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun visited the Burmese city of Yangon last July. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced worries that month over the possibility of North Korea supplying atomic systems to the Southeast Asian nation (Hwang Doo-hyong, Yonhap News Agency, April 12).

Myanmar is an atomic “wannabe” with few peaceful justifications for a nuclear program, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said in an analysis published on Monday. Few details have emerged to aid in evaluating assertions regarding clandestine nuclear operations in the country, the report says.

“The key question remains whether North Korea has sold or will sell Burma’s military regime equipment for a nuclear reactor or a gas centrifuge plant or otherwise will help the regime’s nuclear effort,” the document’s authors wrote.

Burmese resistance organizations and connected specialists have produced the bulk of new details and assertions on the nation’s purported atomic activities, the assessment says. The report warns that such statements should be “approached critically,” but it later says they merit “serious and ongoing consideration.”

A May 2010 report co-authored by Kelley and issued by the dissident group Democratic Voice of Burma asserted that the Burmese ruling junta had begun a nascent effort to develop nuclear weapons. The report relied on photographs and documents provided by a former junta officer. Myanmar has denied those accusations.

Other countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency have taken few public stands on such assertions regarding Myanmar, whereas international deliberations over Iran’s disputed nuclear program has yielded a “more accurate and balanced debate,” the ISIS analysis states (see related GSN story, today).

“Because Burma’s declared nuclear activities are small, these activities are exempt from compulsory IAEA inspections. Moreover, the regime largely ignored IAEA letters sent in mid-2010 asking for additional information and clarification about reports of nuclear development, and the IAEA had little recourse,” the document says.

Kelley and nuclear expert Ali Fowle in May said photographs of atomic equipment in Myanmar provided by defector Sai Thein Win show the “technology is only for nuclear weapons and not civilian use or nuclear power.”

An atomic sector insider, though, questioned the specialists’ assertion that a reduction vessel blueprint obtained by the former military officer shows a machine intended to produce uranium metal for nuclear weapons. The system, referred to as a “bomb reactor,” might aid in the refinement of rare earth metals with peaceful as well as military uses, the ISIS analysis says.

Win said the system was intended for use in the “special substance production research department,” a phrase Kelley and Fowle asserted was a euphemism for uranium production, the report adds.

“Given the vast number of different types of metals that these vessels could produce, ‘special’ is a highly subjective term. Determining what the military regime might call a ‘special substance’ in a country known for intense secrecy is difficult at best,” the assessment’s authors wrote.

Uranium metal produced by the machine could be used “as a tamper” in a nuclear weapon, “but this is still not a compelling indicator of the existence of a nuclear weapons program,” the document says.

“It is difficult to see how all this uncertain information could lead to the conclusion that Burma is developing nuclear weapons. While it could be a possibility, based on the evidence other outcomes are also possible,” the ISIS report says.

“The claim that a country is pursuing a nuclear weapons program should not be made lightly or without significant evidence,” it states, noting that resistance groups had made erroneous allegations over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that served as a rationale for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of that country.

The ISIS experts urged the U.N. nuclear watchdog to lean on the Burmese government to accept an international monitoring arrangement and to cooperate with a probe into its possible atomic dealings with North Korea. “If Burma continues to refuse IAEA requests for more transparency, the Board of Governors should consider this issue and take appropriate action,” they said.

“The United States intelligence community should declassify key findings of its intelligence assessments about Burma’s nuclear activities,” their report states. “One way to do that is for the intelligence community to report its findings to Congress, as it does for several other countries of concern. Likewise, other countries focused on Burma’s nuclear activities, such as Germany and Japan, should publicly report on their own views of alleged nuclear activities.”

A need exists for more “rigorous assessments by outside experts and nongovernmental organizations in determining the actual nuclear situation in Burma,” it adds.

“Burmese opposition groups, including DVB, have obtained important information about the regime’s secret and repressive activities. Win provided important confirmatory and inside information about two long suspected military factories outfitted by the regime’s illicit procurements. Win’s photos were taken inside of these buildings. However, regime opposition groups often utilize unconfirmed nuclear allegations to increase international pressure on the regime” (Institute for Science and International Security report, April 11).

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