U.S. Government Keeps Watch over Burma’s Nuclear Program

December 14, 2010

A series of State Department cables released last week reveal that the United States government closely tracks rumors of North Korean-Burmese nuclear, missile, and military cooperation. Included in these cables is information relating to:

Rumors of a Secret Nuclear Reactor Project with the Assistance of North Korea:

  • In this cable, dated January 20, 2004, a U.S. diplomat discusses an expatriate businessman from Burma’s conversation with another officer about rumors he heard about the government’s construction of a secret nuclear reactor near Minbu, Magwe Division, near the Irrawaddy River. The source spoke of weekly visits by a huge barge delivering rebar, which he was told was for “the construction of unnamed/unidentified factories.” He said that the materials appeared to be useful in the construction of projects larger than factories. The diplomat notes that rumors about a secret nuclear reactor in Burma date to 2002, when Russia and Burma discussed joint cooperation on a research reactor project, which ultimately fell through. She writes that the rumors are now “sans the ‘Russia’ angle,” and have circulated with greater frequency since an article was published by the Far Eastern Economic Review which discussed growing military cooperation between Burma and North Korea. She notes that the rumors are yet without evidence, but reports about the construction of a nuclear reactor are “surprisingly consistent,” and “appear to be increasing, as are alleged sightings of North Korean ‘technicians’ inside Burma.” Rumors about a secret reactor project in Burma have existed since Burma attempted to purchase a research reactor from Russia in 2001. Defectors have reported that the government is building or has built secret reactors with North Korean assistance, but these reports remain unconfirmed.

General Reports of North Korean-Burmese Nuclear Cooperation:

  • In this cable, dated August 7, 2009, the Chargé d’Affaires (CDA) of the U.S. embassy in Rangoon reports about the Australian ambassador to Burma’s troubling conversation with a source (name redacted, but likely a Burmese government official) during which he told her “the Burma-DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] connection is not just about conventional weapons.” “There is a peaceful nuclear component intended to address Burma’s chronic lack of electrical power generation.” The ambassador referenced reports about Burma’s agreement with Russia to buy a nuclear reactor, to which the source replied that the Russia agreement was for “software, training,” and the DPRK agreement was for “hardware.” The source confirmed that the third highest ranking junta official visited North Korea in November 2008 possibly to discuss military cooperation. The source concluded by expressing surprise that the West would be concerned about cooperation with North Korea, since given the sanctions on Burma it has “no other options.”
  • In this cable, dated November 10, 2009, the CDA of the U.S. embassy in Rangoon recounts how the (name redacted) likely Burmese government official told the Australian ambassador that Burma and North Korea were engaged in “peaceful nuclear cooperation,” but then later changed his story and said there was a “misunderstanding.” The Australian ambassador had reacted initially with “incredulity” that “the GOB [Government of Burma] might consider nuclear cooperation of any sort with the DPRK to be acceptable.” The source later said that “GOB-DPRK conversations were merely ‘exploratory.’” He did not confirm any direct nuclear cooperation, and said that the Kang Nam 1 affair (in which the U.S. Navy in the summer of 2009 succeeded in turning back to North Korea a cargo ship suspected to contain military equipment destined for Burma), and Secretary Hillary Clinton’s remarks about the incident “put everything on hold.” The source questioned why anyone should worry about Burma having relations with North Korea because many countries do. The U.S. official concludes by saying that the remark about everything being put on hold “leave[s] room for concern,” but that the source may not in fact be “well plugged in” on the nuclear issue. “GOB-DPRK cooperation remains opaque. Something is certainly happening; whether that something includes ‘nukes’ is a very open question…” The U.S. official’s concerns correlate with public U.S. government statements about nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Burma. There are rumors and suspicions that something is taking place, but no smoking gun to prove it. Nevertheless, the likely Burmese official’s account provides additional reasons for apprehension. The cables show that U.S. officials in Burma continue to be vigilant about reporting back to the Secretary of State and U.S. intelligence and defense agencies about such accounts.

Possible Uranium Exports:

  • In this cable, dated January 30, 2007, the U.S. embassy in Rangoon reports to the Secretary of State and other embassies about reports from (names redacted) sources that Burma shipped to China, via Singapore, 112 metric tons of “mixed ore,” which the sources suspect included uranium. The sources said that the “behavior of authorities” and a range of other logistical changes from the pattern of usual ore shipments made them suspicious about the shipment, including that “security was tighter than usual, surveillance was heavier, and officials paid closer attention to the movement of the shipment and activity at the port.” The commercial source for the shipment, Maw Chi, is also a source for uranium, the sources claimed. The shipment was destined for “Yunnan Minmetals Trading Co., Ltd” and had a value of more than 500,000 Euros. The sources had no evidence to back up their claims other than documents containing shipping information. Given that China is a common transshipment point for nuclear related goods heading to countries like North Korea and Iran, a shipment of uranium from Burma to a Chinese trading company, if it occurred, could be of grave international concern. There have been numerous reports by citizens and defectors of Burma in recent years about suspicious government activity, including relating to uranium mining and ore shipments. No evidence has been uncovered publicly which substantiates these claims.
  • In this cable, dated September 23, 2008, the senior U.S. official at the U.S. embassy in Rangoon tells the State Department and U.S. intelligence agencies and military commands that a Burmese civilian met with officials from the U.S. Defense Attaché office (USDAO) in Rangoon and attempted to sell Burmese-origin Uranium-238, in powder form. According to the cable, the civilian, representing a small group, sought to sell the material to the U.S. embassy, and if it did not accept the offer, he indicated he would try to sell it to the Thai or Chinese embassies. He claimed to have an additional 50 kilograms of “uranium-containing rock or ore,” which he said was discovered at a site in Kayah State in 1992. The source said that 2,000 kilograms more resided in the ground at this site. The United States, apparently interested enough to buy the sample, sent the material to a U.S. Army proving ground for testing. The U.S. official writes, “The Burmese government is currently unaware of USDAO receipt of the sample.” “Burmese authorities would likely seize any additional samples or stocks of the material if aware of their existence.” Reports about uranium mining and milling in Burma have circulated for the last decade, with speculation focusing on whether Burma intends to use mined and milled uranium in a secret nuclear program, or sell it abroad to sanctioned countries. No evidence has surfaced publicly to substantiate these rumors. The Burmese Ministry of Energy has confirmed the discovery of several sites containing uranium deposits.

Reports about North Korean Cooperation on Military Installations and Missiles:

  • In this cable, dated August 27, 2004, a U.S. diplomat discusses reports from a source (whose name has been redacted) that North Korea is helping Burma on the development of military related installations, including constructing a “concrete-reinforced underground facility” in Magwe division and working on surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The source says “some 300 North Koreans are working at a secret construction site.” The diplomat notes that this number seems “improbably high,” “much higher than our best estimates of North Koreans in Burma.” The source says he has personally seen North Koreans coming and going, and that outsiders are prohibited from entering the area. North Korea is supposedly constructing some 20 military related buildings for the Burmese army, including for artillery and infantry. The diplomat cautions, “…Readers should not consider this report alone to be definitive proof or evidence of sizeable North Korean military involvement with the Burmese regime.” The diplomat notes there have been reports that North Korea is involved in developing SAMs in Burma, or something else “of a covert or military-industrial nature.” He concludes, “Exactly what, and on what scale, remains to be determined.” The rumors discussed in this cable indicate the U.S. government has kept tabs on public rumors of missile and military related cooperation between Burma and North Korea, including the construction of underground military facilities. While several news publications and groups have published photographs taken by defectors which purport to be underground military related installations built with the help of North Korea, their true purposes have not yet been fully born out. Burma has been implicated in several cases involving North Korea and the possible transshipment and illicit procurement of nuclear or missile related goods. It is known to have procured suspicious dual-use industrial equipment from European countries in 2006 and 2007, which intelligence agencies assessed went to two identical, heavily secured buildings located in remote parts of the country.

For ISIS’s assessment of Burma’s nuclear program, the existence of covert facilities, rumors about cooperation with North Korea, and Burma’s illicit procurement activities, see: “Burma: A Nuclear Wannabe; Suspicious Links to North Korea; High-Tech Procurements and Enigmatic Facilities.”

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