It is generally agreed that North Korea and Burma have the two most oppressive regimes in Asia.
They rule over two of the poorest countries in the continent, and that is no coincidence whatever. But there is one marked difference between them. No foreign leaders pay court to the Burmese generals in their weirdly grandiose new capital of Naypidaw (which makes even Brasilia seem cozy and intimate), whereas even Bill Clinton, the world’s most recognizable celebrity statesman, makes the pilgrimage to Pyongyang.
Clinton was there to secure the release of two American journalists who were seized on the Chinese-North Korean border four months ago, probably with the explicit purpose of taking American hostages and forcing a high-level U.S. visit to the North Korean capital.
That’s why it was private citizen Bill, rather than his wife, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made the visit to Kim Jong-il: the United States paid the Devil his due, but deniably.
The big difference is this: the Burmese regime is seen by most foreign governments as ugly but basically harmless (except to the Burmese people), whereas the North Korean regime is seen as ugly and extremely dangerous. And the most dangerous thing about North Korea is its nuclear weapons – so if the Burmese generals also want to have emissaries from the great powers genuflecting at their doorstep, they need some nuclear weapons too.
The notion of a nuclear-armed Burma is faintly ridiculous, because the country has no foreign enemies that it needs to deter, let alone wants to attack. But respect matters too, especially to regimes (like the Burmese) that feel their legitimacy is always under question. Burmese nukes would elicit a whole lot of respect.
Articles published in the past week in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Bangkok Post by Professor Desmond Ball of the Australian National University and by Thai-based Irish journalist Phil Thornton suggest that the Burmese military regime has sought North Korean help to build its own nuclear weapons. Specifically, it wants the North Koreans to create a plutonium reprocessing plant in caves near Naung Laing in northern Burma, not far from the site of a civilian nuclear reactor that is being built with Russian help.
So far, it sounds like the plot for a sequel to Team America: World Police, but the usually reliable website Dictator Watch has been publishing warnings about the Burmese nuclear weapons project for several years now.
Most of the information comes from defectors, included a former army officer who was sent to Moscow for two years of training in nuclear engineering. A thousand others were being sent as well, he said.
In June the North Korean freighter Kang Nam 1, bound for Burma, turned back to port rather than accept inspection by U.S. warships under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874. That resolution was a response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test, and requires governments to inspect ships coming from or going to North Korea if there are “reasonable grounds to believe” the vessel is carrying various categories of weapons including missile- and weapons of mass destruction-related cargoes
Defectors often make stuff up to inflate their importance in the eyes of their new masters: just think of the preposterous tripe that was peddled as “intelligence” by Iraqi defectors in the run-up to the 2003 invasion. But at least three Burmese defectors have told essentially the same tale about their country’s nuclear weapons project, although they had no opportunity to co-ordinate their stories and did not even know one another.
Why would North Korea be doing it? Because it is being paid in “yellowcake” (partially refined uranium) which Burma processes at the Thabeik Kyin plant. And also because the fact that North Korea is a reckless nuclear weapons proliferator, willing to sell to anybody, makes it more dangerous, and being dangerous is what forces people like Bill and Hillary Clinton (and ultimately Barack Obama) to talk to it. All assuming that North Korea really is helping Burma to develop nuclear weapons, of course.
Ball and Thornton suggest that Burma could be processing eight kg of plutonium-239 a year by 2014, after which it could produce one atomic bomb per year. Well, yes, but we all know that apparently competent intelligence agencies like the CIA and Mossad have been predicting that Iran will have nuclear weapons within five years practically every years since the early 1990s.
They were wrong about Iran every year, and Iran is a much more serious country, in scientific, technological and industrial terms, than Burma.
But suppose it’s true. Why would Burma be doing it? Not to nuke Thailand or Malaysia or Bangladesh, surely, for it has no serious quarrel with its neighbours. But one can imagine that Senior General Than Shwe and his colleagues would feel a good deal more secure if the United States and other great powers, instead of condemning and boycotting the Burmese dictatorship, were begging it to be responsible and give up its nuclear weapons.
Could it be as simple as that? Of course it could. That’s why North Korea developed nuclear weapons, too.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.