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WikiLeaked

North Koreans sighted at Burma’s suspected nuclear facility

Speculation that North Korea is aiding the Burmese junta in its aspiring nuclear program have been around for years, at least since the Far Eastern Economic Review first published an investigation on the subject in November 2003. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly fretted about North Korean involvement in July 2009, and the U.N. security ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Speculation that North Korea is aiding the Burmese junta in its aspiring nuclear program have been around for years, at least since the Far Eastern Economic Review first published an investigation on the subject in November 2003. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly fretted about North Korean involvement in July 2009, and the U.N. security council accused the Hermit Kingdom of shipping centrifuge components to the Burmese junta via a series of shell companies in a report last month.

These reports range from speculation to informed speculation, and the cables from the U.S. embassy in Rangoon released by WikiLeaks yesterday aren’t qualitatively different, though they add a few new intriguing data points.

In January 2004, an “expatriate businessman” told the embassy that he had heard rumors of a nuclear facility under construction in Magway Division along the Irawaddy River, and reported other suspicious goings-on: barges traveling up the river with building materials of a size too large for any of the industrial development projects in the area, a new airport with a landing strip so wide, the informant said, that “you could land the space shuttle on it.”

The following August, an informant told the embassy that “some 300 North Koreans” were in the same area, assembling missiles and building an underground facility at a secret construction site. The author of the State Department cable seems skeptical, both about the storyteller and the story (“the number of North Koreans supposedly working at this site strikes us as improbably high”), but notes that this “second-hand account of North Korean involvement with missile assembly and military construction in Magway Division generally tracks with other information Embassy Rangoon and others hve reported in various channels.”

North Korea has generally been suspected of helping Burma with its ballistic missile efforts, but not necessarily the actual nuclear program. So it’s notable that this August 2009 cable reports a conversation with Australian Ambassador to Burma Michelle Chan, who told the U.S. embassy that her contact in the Burmese government

told her the Burma-DPRK connection is not just about conventional weapons. There is a peaceful nuclear component intended to address Burma’s chronic lack of electrical power generation. When Chan cited reports of a Burma-Russia agreement for development of a peaceful nuclear reactor, XXXXXXXXXXXX responded that the agreement with Russia is currently just for “software, training.” The DPRK agreement is for “hardware.” XXXXXXXXXXXX confirmed reports Burma’s Army Chief of Staff (third highest ranking) General Thura Shwe Mann visited the DPRK last November. Asked why Thura Shwe Mann, XXXXXXXXXXXX responded, “Because he is in charge of all military activities.” XXXXXXXXXXXX reportedly seemed surprised that the West might be concerned by a Burma-DPRK “peaceful” nuclear relationship. XXXXXXXXXXXX suggested that, after all, given sanctions, Burma really has “no other options” but to develop the relationship with North Korea.

A couple other somewhat less conclusive cables about Burma’s nuclear activities are here and here. Speculation about what exactly the Burmese junta is up to has increased since a former army major went to a Burmese pro-democracy group with a mountain of inside information on the country’s nuclear agenda. Democratic Voice of Burma’s thorough debriefing of the major, Sai Thein Win, is still the most authoritative account of what’s going on in the isolated country. For now, most of the rest — including these new cables — is difficult to definitively parse one way or the other.

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