As Obama calls for reduced nukes, a surprising new rogue state looms. Philip Shenon reports U.S. spy agencies fear Burma is trying to buy nuclear weapons technology from North Korea.
Even as President Obama won agreement from world leaders this week to block the spread of nuclear weapons, the United States is facing a new—and unexpected—nuclear foe: Burma.
National-security officials tell The Daily Beast that U.S. spy agencies and their Asian counterparts have stepped up surveillance of potential nuclear sites in Burma in recent weeks in light of evidence that suggests the country’s brutal junta is trying to buy nuclear-weapons technology from North Korea.
“Burma can become the second hermit kingdom in Asia with nuclear weapons, able to deflect any outside threat,” says one senior American diplomat.
Intelligence officials fear the paranoid, iron-fisted generals who run Burma see a nuclear program—and ultimately, a nuclear bomb—as a way of securing their hold on power forever. There can be little doubting their will to dominate the political stage; the nation’s leading dissident, Nobel Prize- winning pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under house arrest for most of the last 20 years.
“The Burmese have a model in North Korea,” said a senior American diplomat. “Burma can become the second hermit kingdom in Asia with nuclear weapons, able to deflect any outside threat.”
He added: “Unfortunately for us, Burma has the hard currency to buy what Pyongyang is selling—it may be rubies for atoms.”
While most of Burma’s 50 million people live in shocking poverty, the country is rich in natural resources; the junta earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the sale of natural gas, hardwood and the fabled Burmese rubies cherished by the global gem dealers.
Although it denies interest in a nuclear weapon, Burma does not hide all of its nuclear ambitions. In 2007, it signed an agreement with Russia for the construction of a small nuclear reactor on Burmese soil.
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• Joseph Cirincione: Will Obama End the Nuclear Era?A new study by the Institute for Science and International Security, a respected Washington think tank, described Burma as a “nuclear wannabe” and said there were “sound reasons to suspect that the military regime in Burma might be pursuing a long-term strategy to make nuclear weapons”—with North Korea’s help.
The study noted that the military government in Burma, one of the most economically and technologically backward nations in Southeast Asia, had recently attempted to purchase sophisticated industrial equipment that could be converted to use in a nuclear program.
Last June, Japanese authorities announced that they had broken up a criminal smuggling ring that was attempting to export a high-tech magnetometer to Burma via Malaysia.
The purchase of the device, which can be used to make gas-centrifuges for processing uranium, was organized through a trading company long affiliated with the North Korean government.
That same month, American warships forced a North Korean cargo ship bound for Burma to return home. U.S. officials suggested that ship was carrying weapons that had been sold to the Burmese military in violation of a United Nations embargo.
David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq who was an author of the recent study, told The Daily Beast that he saw disturbing parallels between North Korea’s cooperation with Burma and Pyongyang’s recent activities in Syria.
In 2007, Israeli warplanes destroyed an underground facility in Syria that, according to American intelligence officials, was being built secretly by North Korea to manufacture and store nuclear weapons.
“What happened in Syria tells us that we have to take the situation in Burma seriously,” Albright said. “We can’t turn a blind eye to this.”
In 2007, Burma and North Korean restored diplomatic and military relations after a 24-year break.
The growing ties between the two countries have alarmed Burma’s neighbors. India, which shares a 1,600-mile border with Burma to its east, already faces nuclear-armed neighbors to its west, in Pakistan, and to its north, in China.
The alliance between the Burmese and North Koreans brings together two of the world’s most isolated, repressive and,—some would say—loony governments.
Like their North Korean counterparts, Burmese leaders operate out of an acute fear of threats from the outside world, especially from the United States. The repressiveness of the Burmese junta is overlaid with mysticism that can often border on the bizarre.
The junta’s top leader, General Than Shwe, is known to make few important decisions without consulting astrologists and numerologists; his mentor, former prime minister Ne Win, liked to dress is royal gowns and is reported to have bathed in dolphins’ blood on the advice of soothsayers who promised it would keep him young.
David Steinberg, a Burma specialist at Georgetown University who is director of Asian studies at the university’s School of Foreign Policy, said he was not surprised by the Burmese junta might want an nuclear program given its paranoia about the United States.
He said that for Burma’s leaders, like their North Korean counterparts, there was a “palpable fear” of an invasion by the United States military. “I think it’s crazy, of course, but they think it’s possible,” he said.
Professor Steinberg suggested the Burmese might seek nuclear warheads that could be mounted on short-range ballistic missiles aimed at American military bases in neighboring Thailand, creating a nuclear umbrella against American attack. “They may feel that it’s the only way to protect themselves,” he said of the Burmese generals.
That Burma would resume any sort of diplomatic and military relations with North Korea may signal the Burmese military’s desperation for an alliance that might offer protection from outside threats.
Burma broke off all relations with Pyongyang in 1983 after North Korean spies were accused of setting off a huge bomb in Rangoon, the Burmese capital, that was intended to kill members of a delegation of South Korean visitors. The bomb killed 17 South Koreans and four Burmese.
Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.