Does Burma Still Have Nuclear Dreams?

The answer lies with the mysterious Dr. Ko Ko Oo.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

President Obama is visiting Myanmar, better known as Burma. At the beginning of his term, Burma seemed set to take the place in the Axis of Evil left vacant by Iraq. In addition to brutally suppressing a pro-democracy movement, the regime’s leaders had cultivated ties with North Korea and expressed an unhealthy interest in ballistic missiles and nuclear technology. Matters came to a head in 2009 and again in 2011 when a North Korean ship headed for Burma, carrying what the administration suspected might be ballistic missiles.

Then suddenly Burma came in from the cold. It released Aung San Suu Kyi, darling of the democracy movements, and told John McCain that it was done with all that nasty nuclear business. Case closed, right?

Well, not so fast. Although I welcome Burma’s public rejection of nuclear weapons, experts had real reasons for concerns about Burma’s past activities. I understand it is hard to imagine poor, backwards Burma in possession of nuclear weapons. But Burma’s leaders are isolated and a bit paranoid. Which sounds like North Korea. We know how that worked out.

Administration officials are careful to make clear that they continue to be concerned about Burma’s nuclear interests, as well as its relationship with North Korea. And it is worth stating at the outset that much of the information provided by dissident groups is of little value. It is often technically ignorant gossip gussied up as intelligence. Some of it appears to be outright fabrication, the sort of defector clap-trap made famous by Iraqis like Rafid Ahmed Alwan, better known as “Curveball.”

But even if one strips away the near-hysterical claims of some dissident groups, some disquieting facts remain.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, let’s look at a few.

The first one is a doozy. Hungry?

This is Senior General Shwe Mann in 2008 (seated, center left) — then the head of Burma’s military, now speaker of the lower house of parliament — with Jon Byong Ho (standing).

Jon was North Korea’s proliferator-in-chief, perhaps best known as the author of this letter released by business associate AQ Khan. For many years, Jon ran the Second Economic Committee in North Korea, along with his son-in-law, Yun Ho Jin. My colleague Josh Pollack dubbed them the “Dynamic Duo” of North Korean proliferation. Although Jon is now in his eighties and probably out to pasture, the sight of a senior Burmese general sitting down to dinner with him in North Korea is not encouraging.

The photo is one of nearly 200 images from a trip taken by a senior Burmese military delegation to North Korea in 2008. Another photo offers a rare glimpse inside North Korea’s main missile factory.

Source: Democratic Voice of Burma

In addition to the pictures, there is a trip report, which makes clear that the Burmese window-shopped for ballistic missiles at North Korea’s primary missile production facility. The list of foreign delegations to have visited this factory is not long — it includes Egyptians, Syrians, and Iranians. Customers only. The trip report notes that “at an appropriate time, we should continue to produce these strategic weapons step by step.” Shwe Mann also took time to sign a memorandum of understanding with the North Koreans on defense cooperation.

Gen. Shwe Man and KPA Chief of General Staff Gen. Kim Gyok Sik sign a memorandum of understanding on the 26th November 2008 (Source: Democratic Voice of Burma)

This helps explain why the United States turned back that North Korean ship headed to Burma. It is unclear whether American officials knew for certain whether the ship carried ballistic missiles, as they claimed, but one has to wonder after seeing pictures like this. The North Koreans were so pleased to see these pictures and the trip report online that they leaned on the Burmese to sentence to death two Burmese officials accused of having leaked it. I have no idea of knowing whether the sentence was carried out. But Burma’s generals clearly have some sort of relationship with North Korea.

Obama officials have been clear that this is a continuing source of concern. According to Derek Mitchell, now the U.S. ambassador to Burma: “We have been quite consistent and direct in public and private about our continuing concerns about the lack of transparency in Burma’s military relationship with North Korea and specifically that the government must adhere to its obligations under relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions and its other international nonproliferation obligations.”

Let’s look at some more pictures. Burma has openly sought to develop an ostensibly civilian nuclear program. For example, it has a Department of Atomic Energy. Until recently, DAE was run by this fellow in the green sarong: Dr. Ko Ko Oo.

Source: Regional Cooperation Agreement Oganization.

Dr. Ko Ko Oo now heads the Ministry of Science and Technology, which in 2007 concluded a memorandum of understanding with Russia to train 300-350 DAE personnel and to construct a nuclear research center in Burma, including a 10-megawatt research reactor fueled with low-enriched uranium. The deal eventually collapsed, but Burma has sent what Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell called “alarming numbers” of students to train in Russia. Here’s a picture of a few trainees posing outside the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys.

Documents released by DictatorWatch, one of the more vociferous groups opposed to the Burmese regime, suggest that Burmese students are studying a range of missile and nuclear fuel-cycle activities in Russia, including the production of uranium, reactor operations, and spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. Burma has also carried out efforts to explore and exploit the country’s uranium resources.

Let’s pause before moving on to the more controversial material. There is no question that Burma went shopping in North Korea, toured the main missile factory, and signed an MOU on defense cooperation. Nor is there any question that Burma attempted to purchase a research reactor from Russia and sent large numbers of students to train in Russia. Once upon a time, if a country tried to purchase ballistic missiles and a research reactor, that made people nervous.

What really caught international attention, however, have been the claims of a defector named Sai Thein Win, a former major in the Burmese Army, who left Burma with a large number of photographs from a pair of technical workshops — one in Myaing and one in Nuang Laing — where he claims to have worked. These allegations are carefully summarized in a report prepared by Robert Kelley and Ali Fowle for the Democratic Voice of Burma, a group opposed to the Burmese regime. This is Sai, holding what appears to be a component of a rocket engine called an impeller.

Sai claimed the Myaing facility was associated with a nascent missile program, which would be consistent with his technical training. The Nuang Laing facility may be part of the same missile program, but it has also been rumored to be part of a nuclear program. After examining images of equipment manufactured using the tools at Myaing and Nuang Laing, Kelley and Fowle conclude that “this technology is only for nuclear weapons and not civilian use or nuclear power.”

The workshops contain specialized machine tools from Germany and Switzerland. One of the suppliers had doubts about the end-user — officially the Department of Vocational Training and Education (DVTE) — and visited the facilities. According to Kelley and Fowle, foreign experts noted a number of discrepancies when visiting the site that caused them to wonder about the credibility of the declared end-use. For example, why did the staff contain only men of military age?

Here is a picture of a group of foreign experts visiting the facility near Nuang Laing. Notice a familiar face? Why, yes, that is our old friend Dr. Ko Ko Oo.

Source: Democratic Voice of Burma

In addition to being the head of the Department of Atomic Energy, Dr. Ko Ko Oo was deputy director of DTVE and reportedly signed the end-user certificate for the equipment. These are examples of what David Albright has described as “deep connections” between DAE and DTVE.

Sai explained the discrepancies by noting the workshops were for defense production. He provided a number of photographs from inside at least one of the workshops showing uniformed personnel posing with equipment.

Source: Democratic Voice of Burma

Besides the presence of uniformed personnel, there are other reasons to suspect the facilities have a military purpose. For example, in most other cases, Burmese officials have publicly announced the opening of machine tool workshops.

There is a debate about the accuracy of Kelley and Fowle’s analysis. The authors say the sum total of all the equipment suggests a uranium-based weapons program. Others, however, have been more skeptical. Pro Publica, a non-profit investigative journalism organization, released a report critical of Kelley’s analysis that relied largely on anonymous intelligence sources. U.S. officials are said to have gone through the report “line by line” and rejected its conclusions, but the experts are anonymous and the basis for their rejection is not stated. David Albright and Christina Walrond argue that much of the equipment documented by Sai could be for recovering rare earths — the funny metals essential to your smartphone and other digital gizmos. (To be clear, Albright has called Burma a “nuclear wannabe” and advised companies to be cautious in any dealings with Burma.)

The debate has gotten a bit heated at times, which is tough for me because I like all of the parties tremendously. And, in this case, I think the situation is rather complicated.

The extraction of rare earths is a plausible use for the equipment. A textbook, Extractive Metallurgy of Rare Earths, lists uses for all the equipment identified by Kelley: bomb reduction vessels, fluidized bed reactors made from Inconel to handle fluorine, glove boxes, and so on. (If you are desperate for a detailed discussion on the use of Inconel in handling fluorinated gas, I have posted a long technical analysis on my blog, I think it is too strong to say there are no civilian applications for the equipment that Burma was producing.

But, and this is a Sir Mix-a-Lot-sized but

The authors of the textbook are two scientists at the Bhabba Atomic Research Center (BARC) in India. The United States sanctioned BARC after India’s 1998 nuclear tests, because it is the beating heart of the Indian nuclear weapons program. India has a gas centrifuge program for enriching uranium located near Mysore, which operates under the cover of being a “rare metals plant.” (The United States also sanctioned Indian Rare Earths, which operates the plant.)

So, a Department of Atomic Energy might plausibly engage in rare earths extraction given the similar technologies. But it might also use rare earths extraction as a cover for a military uranium enrichment program. Damned inconvenient, eh?

Burma also appears to maintain a unit called the “Number 1 Science and Technology Battalion” in a jungle facility near Thabeikkyin. That unit apparently requested production of a bomb reduction vessel from the factory in Myaing. Documents posted by DictatorWatch, describing the layout of the facility, are consistent with overhead images of a site located at: 22° 57′ 29.59″ N, 96° 5′ 51.02″ E. In addition to the satellite images, there are a small number of photographs of a visit to a construction site that perfectly matches the topography and layout of the buildings. Here’s one showing the VIP visitor:

Why, unless I am very much mistaken, it’s our old friend Ko Ko Oo. The presence of the senior DAE official at the site on what would appear to be an inspection tour suggests a nuclear purpose for the facility.

If neither the Number 1 Science and Technology Regiment nor the workshop near Nuang Laing are related to some sort of nuclear program, I’d really like to understand what the director of the Department of Atomic Energy was doing at both locations. And why is another of the machine shops producing equipment for the Number 1 Science and Technology Regiment? And why are the personnel at the civilian workshop posing in olive drab? I can come up possible explanations, but why should I have to guess? Dr. Ko Ko Oo could perhaps provide some insight here.

So, let’s recap. Burma’s military went on a shopping expedition to North Korea that included a tour of a ballistic missile factory, signing of a defense MOU, and dinner with the proliferator-in-chief. Burma’s Department of Atomic Energy also attempted to purchase a research reactor from Russia and sent students to train in subjects such as reprocessing. Dr. Ko Ko Oo also was involved in the procurement of machine tools from foreign suppliers to establish two workshops that supply a military facility carved out of the jungle.

Golly, a fellow could get real suspicious.

I hasten to add that I have not included the wilder rumors about covert nuclear reactors and so forth. There is a lot of garbage out there about Burma’s nuclear program. (Poor David Albright has had his hands full shooting down a lot of this silliness including some nonsense relating to tunnels. What is it about tunneling that makes people crazy?) Cables from Wikileaks demonstrate the very, uh, uneven quality of reporting. Worst of all, the dissident groups have turned on one another claiming credit for this discovery or that.

But despite all this drama, there is no “smoking gun,” as former IAEA safeguard head Olli Heinonen has cautioned, that proves Burma is, or was, seeking a nuclear weapon.

Burma’s motives are unclear. Perhaps some members of the Burmese junta believe that nuclear weapons would shield the regime from foreign pressure. Perhaps the Ministry of Science and Technology sees the extraction of rare earths as a future source of hard currency. And perhaps the machine tools they produced were intended for another country. But the workshop near Nuang Laing reminds me of the workshop that AQ Khan attempted to establish in nearby Malaysia. Whatever it is, something is going on. I would bloody well like to know what it is.

The Obama administration claims it is serious about ensuring that nonproliferation is part of its policy of engaging Burma. On the other hand, the anonymous officials cited by Pro Publica leave me with the impression that they worry too much attention to Dr. Ko Ko Oo’s activities might disturb the delicate transition to civilian rule. These officials may calculate that democratization in Burma will move much faster than programs to develop ballistic missiles or nuclear technology. In October, Glyn Davies, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, told reporters that although Burma’s leaders “made a strategic decision to…ultimately end these relationships with North Korea…it’s a work in process. It was a long relationship that the two countries had and so it does take some time to work through it.” It will be interesting to see how patient Congress will be.

Still, if the administration is reluctant to press for a full accounting of Burma’s nuclear activities in the near-term, there are some more modest steps that we might seek:

  • In late 2010, the IAEA director-general reportedly sent a letter to the Burmese government, requesting that the country “provide information about reports suggesting it was engaging in suspicious nuclear activities.” Burma should oblige, providing access to facilities and associated personnel at Myaing, Nuang Laing, and Thabeikkyin.
  • Senior Burmese officials have indicated they would consider signing an Additional Protocol, a stronger nuclear safeguards agreement created in response to Iraq’s efforts to evade safeguards in the 1980s. Just do it, already. It also wouldn’t hurt if Burma reported its uranium mining and milling activities.
  • Russia and Burma should provide the IAEA details about the scope and size of training programs conducted for Burmese citizens. Who were these students? What did they study? Where are they today?
  • Burma, we are told, has made a strategic decision to suspend defense cooperation with North Korea, but it should report the extent of its past dealings to the United Nations, starting with the full text of the purported MOU.

These steps fall well short of a complete accounting of Burma’s nuclear activities, but they would offer some assurance that Burma is not actively pursuing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons while it is seeking to end its international isolation.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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