SINGAPORE (Reuters) - A spate of reports that North Korea may be helping fellow pariah state Myanmar join the nuclear club has underlined concerns over Pyongyang’s proliferation activities since it renounced disarmament talks and tested a bomb.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted the issue at a regional security meeting in Thailand last month, saying she was worried about possible nuclear transfers to Myanmar — though stopping short of saying any had taken place. Indian authorities have detained a North Korean ship and are searching it for radioactive material, the first case of a ship being detained and searched under U.N. sanctions adopted in June following North Korea’s atomic test the month before.
The MV Mu San dropped anchor off the Andaman islands last Wednesday without permission and was detained by the coastguard after a chase lasting several hours. Indian officials said they were trying to determine if Myanmar had been on its route.
“With increasing reports of North Korea helping Myanmar build a nuclear reactor, any vessel floating in Indian waters without a possible reason will be checked and India is rightly concerned,” said Naresh Chandra, a former envoy to Washington.
A nuclear-armed Myanmar, which lies between Asia’s two nuclear powers India and China, poses a major proliferation risk in the region, particularly among its Southeast Asian neighbors, who have proclaimed the region a nuclear weapons-free zone.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported recently that North Korea is helping Myanmar build a secret nuclear reactor and plutonium extraction plant in a drive to build an atomic bomb by 2014.
The “secret plant” is supposedly hidden inside a mountain at Naung Laing in northern Myanmar and runs parallel to a research reactor that Russia has agreed to help build at another site, the Herald said, citing evidence from defectors.
The research reactor, groundbreaking for which is scheduled in January, has not yet come under the inspection regime of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The agency asked the former Burma two years ago to host an IAEA team, following initial reports of its reactor deal with Russia, one knowledgeable official said, but the junta has yet to respond.
One of the defectors in the Herald’s report, a former army officer, told Australian National University professor Desmond Ball that he was trained in a 1,000-man “nuclear battalion” and Myanmar had provided yellowcake uranium to North Korea and Iran.
The defectors also said North Korean had helped build tunnels that could be used to hide secret nuclear facilities. Some analysts believe, however, that the junta, which has expressed fears of a U.S. attack, could be building tunnels as elaborate air raid shelters.
Trevor Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar now at Australian National University, says he is skeptical about the Herald report, noting defectors are notoriously unreliable.
“I wasn’t entirely convinced the evidence they were citing was pointing to a nuclear weapons program. It could have been a nuclear power program,” he told Reuters.
“There’s plenty of evidence of a military relationship and also a suggestion over a long period that the Burmese army is interested in acquiring missiles from a country like North Korea, but not necessarily a nuclear-armed missile.”
Myanmar broke diplomatic relations with North Korea in 1983 after North Korean agents attempted to assassinate the visiting South Korean prime minister, but ties were restored in 2007.
Wilson said that while Myanmar has known reserves of uranium, no evidence had emerged it has been refining it into “yellowcake or anything else for that matter”.
He said it was possible Myanmar was bartering uranium ore for conventional weapons, maybe even missile parts or technology.
Days before Clinton spoke in Thailand, a U.S. destroyer tailed a North Korean cargo ship, the Kang Nam I, believed to be taking small arms to Myanmar, forcing it eventually to turn around and go home.
Weapons exports are a key source of revenue for North Korea’s ramshackle economy. Its May nuclear test may have been as much a marketing ploy to pique the interest of potential rogue buyers as a move in its geopolitical chess game.
In 2007, Israeli jets destroyed a nuclear reactor the North Koreans had helped to build. Iran has used North Korean technology in some of its missiles, and analysts fear Pyongyang could help Tehran develop nuclear weapons.
Some analysts say the threat of a nuclear deterrent may be just what the military regime in impoverished and isolated Myanmar is really after.
Wilson does not buy that.
North Korea actually faces a nuclear threat from the United States in North Asia. Myanmar does not.
“Why would the Burmese army want to acquire nuclear weapons for national security? It would actually make them a target. It wouldn’t help them with any threats they face, which are all of a conventional nature.” (Editing by John Chalmers)