Can We Believe Burma?

Burma claims it can’t afford nuclear weapons. But its ties with North Korea are both convenient and troubling.

Luke Hunt

The Burmese and North Koreans are getting a little tongue-tied over their nuclear ambitions.

As I’ve mentioned recently, Burma's government insists it can’t afford the atomic ambitions that officials in the West fear Naypyidaw harbours, despite the enormous personal wealth generated by circles around the junta in recent decades.

Their wealth, combined with their unique relations with countries like North Korea and China, would be more than enough to at least kick-start the early stages of such a programme, and the noises out of Pyongyang have done nothing to dispel such suggestions.

This was highlighted by revelations in the United States of a stand-off between a North Korean ship suspected of containing banned weapons, and en-route to Burma, and a US Navy destroyer.

US officials sought and received approval from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and maritime authorities in Belize to engage the M/V Light, a Belize-flagged vessel known to have been previously used for weapons exports to Burma and the Middle East.

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The ship was intercepted by the USS McCampbell in late May, however, the North Korean crew refused to let the M/V Light be boarded, insisting the boat was carrying industrial chemicals destined for Bangladesh.

The United States didn’t force the issue, nor did it want to risk a military confrontation as officials couldn’t be completely sure what cargo the ship contained. The standoff continued for several days before the vessel turned back and sailed for home.

Ties between Burma and North Korea have improved dramatically in recent years, a far cry from 1983, when North Korean agents detonated a bomb in Rangoon, killing several South Korean cabinet ministers and resulting in a severing of diplomatic relations.

The warming of ties is timely. Concerns persist over nuclear proliferation among questionable states like Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and Burma, and the issue is consistently at the top of the international diplomatic agenda.

Two weeks ago, the junta, which has run Burma for almost 50 years, told US Sen. John McCain that their country isn’t wealthy enough to acquire nuclear weapons. Burma would certainly like to convince the world it’s evolving from a military run junta to a government controlled by civilians. At the same time, about 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars, and there has been no shift in international opinion, which widely regards last year’s elections as a sham.

If proven, Burma’s suspected trading links with North Korea would be in breach of UN Security Council resolution 1874 and 1718 barring Pyongyang from engaging in the arms trade. Resolution 1874 followed North Korea’s second nuclear test.

Burma deserves full marks for trying, but its attempts at persuading the wider world of its emergence as a regular country worthy of normal relations with everyone else are falling a little flat.