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Ignored: North Korea’s Shadowy Arms Deals with Burma

Reports from two years ago suggest North Korea has been quietly helping Burma’s military regime build a nuclear reactor. While covert interactions between these pariah states have raised alarm in regional and Western security circles for quite some time, most mainstream Western media have ignored them. The following is a review of those activities, based largely reports appearing in the recently defunct Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) and the work of Australian military scholar Andrew Selth:

FEER first revealed evidence about Burma’s attempt to build an nuclear reactor with North Korean help in a report it published in November of 2003.

North Korean technicians were spotted unloading large crates and heavy construction equipment from trains at Myothit, Magwe Division, in central Burma, where the nuclear reactor was believed to be under construction, diplomats told FEER. The diplomats also saw aircraft belonging to Air Koryo, North Korea’s national airline, landing at military airfields in central Burma.

The international community had already learned that Burma’s regime wanted a nuclear reactor, possibly for peaceful purposes. In 2000, the military government formed the Department of Atomic Energy under its Ministry of Science and Technology. After that, Burma asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to help it build a nuclear research reactor. The regime had also approached Russia and China to that end.

In 2002, Russia agreed to sell Burma a nuclear reactor for peaceful research purposes. Burma selected and sent hundreds of students to study nuclear engineering and science in Russia. Moscow was to provide aid for the reactor, but the arrangement reportedly died when Burma’s government could no longer fund it.

By 2003, FEER’s report said, North Korea had taken over from Russia as the source of Burma’s nuclear technology. At roughly the same time, Andrew Selth observed that 80 Burmese military personnel had departed for North Korea to study “nuclear and atomic energy technology.”

The reason Burma wanted a nuclear reactor was not clear. The Burmese junta denied any ambition to possess nuclear weapons. Analysts noted that the reactor could be used as a bargaining chip against the United States and its allies.

Since the junta assumed power in 1988, it has been criticized by Western countries, especially the United States, for its poor human rights record and its oppression of political dissents. Because of its alienation from the West, the military regime buys its advanced jet fighter-bombers, warships, tanks, small arms and ammunition from suppliers such as China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and Eastern European countries.

North Korea and Burma have not had formal diplomatic ties since 1983, when Pyongyang sent a three-man team to assassinate then South Korean president Chun Doo Hwan while he was visiting Rangoon. A remote-controlled bomb planted by North Korean agents exploded prematurely and the President escaped. But the explosion killed seventeen South Korean officials–including four cabinet ministers–and four Burmese officials. Burmese police killed one North Korean intelligence officer and arrested two more after the attack.

A secret trade in conventional weapons appears to have begun in 1990, two years after Burma’s military staged its bloody coup and fell under arms embargos. According to Selth, Burma seems to have succeeded in buying 20 million rounds of 7.62mm AK-47 rifle ammunition from North Korea in 1990. Burma managed to purchase 16 130mm M-46 field guns in the late 1990s, Selth says. Jane’s Defense Weekly has reported that North Korea has been exporting weapons to Burma since 1998. Some reports claim the arms deals were arranged through Thai and Singaporean agents. Others suggest China brokered a missile deal between the two regimes.

Officials from North Korea and Burma have exchanged several visits despite the absence of formal diplomatic ties. In June 2001, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Pak Gil-yon and visited Rangoon with an unofficial delegation. Later it was reported that a team of North Korean technicians arrived and started working at Rangoon. Burma’s military officials also made secret visits to Pyongyang.

As unofficial ties continued, North Korea reportedly sold surface-to-surface missiles to Burma. In July 2003, according to diplomatic sources, around 20 North Korean technicians were sighted at Burma’s main Monkey Point naval facility in Rangoon. They were believed to be installing missiles in patrol boats. Residents and diplomats in Rangoon said the North Korean technicians were staying at a Defence Ministry guesthouse in the capital.

Meanwhile, talks took place between Rangoon and Pyongyang over the purchase of one or two small submarines, and possibly even a number of short-range ballistic missiles. In August 2003, according to Selth, there were unconfirmed reports of a secret meeting in Rangoon over purchase of the submarines and missiles. The submarine sale seems to have been postponed. Even if a missile deal occurred, according to Selth, delivery would take some years.

The diplomats quoted by Far Eastern Economic Review suggested that Burma, said to be Southeast Asia’s largest producer of illicit drugs, was trading drugs for weapons. A senior US official said in 2003 that Burma’s regime had agreed to supply heroin to North Korea in exchange for missiles and nuclear technology.

The United States later warned the Burmese regime over its dealings with North Korea.

“The link-up of these two pariah states can only spell trouble,” said Senator Richard Lugar, Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “North Korea's main export is dangerous weapons technology. These developments are the seeds of a major threat to Asian security and stability.”

The US State Department announced in March last year that it had registered an official complaint with the Burmese government over the rumored missile transfers from North Korea. Matthew Daley, deputy assistant secretary in the bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, confirmed the junta had been seeking a nuclear reactor but dismissed rumor the reactor was already being built as “not well-founded,” according to a Bloomberg report.

Otherwise, the story appears to have been forgotten.