Will Myanmar Become the Next North Korea?

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Security | Southeast Asia

Will Myanmar Become the Next North Korea?

A recent indictment resurrects longstanding concerns about nuclear proliferation in Myanmar, with the complicating factor of an ongoing civil war.

Will Myanmar Become the Next North Korea?
Credit: Depositphotos

On February 21, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Japanese Yakuza leader Takeshi Ebisawa on charges of international trafficking of nuclear materials from Myanmar beginning in early 2020. Ebisawa had already been in U.S. custody since April 2022, after he was charged in New York City for illegal arms trading and narcotrafficking. The recent indictment raises the stakes by alleging that he attempted to trade weapon grade plutonium and uranium concentrate powder known as “yellowcake” on behalf of unnamed insurgents in Myanmar. In exchange, he wanted to receive surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and other military-grade weapons.

The indictment outlined that Ebisawa and his co-conspirators had explicitly stated to undercover Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents on February 4, 2022 that production of roughly five tons of nuclear materials is possible in Myanmar. Also, Ebisawa asserted that he had access to roughly 2,000 kilograms of Thorium-232 and 100 kilograms of yellowcake, and sent photographs as evidence. The indictment noted that a “U.S. nuclear forensic laboratory later analyzed the samples and confirmed that the samples contain uranium and weapons-grade plutonium.”    

Ebisawa believed he was discussing the sale of nuclear materials with a general from Iran, but he was actually speaking to undercover agents for the DEA. Although the attempted transaction was neutralized by the DEA’s sting operation, this incident highlights that non-conventional nuclear threats posed by non-state actors are still a clear and present danger. In particular, the event underscores the danger of nuclear production and proliferation in Myanmar, where oversight is nearly non-existent amid a devastating civil war.

A Brief History of Myanmar’s Nuclear Program

Myanmar’s first attempt to utilize nuclear energy came through the establishment of the Union of Burma Atomic Energy Center in 1955, which was later reestablished as the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) under the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) in 1997. Also in 1955, Myanmar (then known as Burma) participated in the United Nations Conference on Atoms for Peace. Then in 1957, the country became one of the founding members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 

Amid the post-Cold War denuclearization trend, Myanmar became a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1992. After that, Myanmar signed on to the Bangkok Treaty in 1995, showing its commitment not to develop nuclear weapons. 

Given the country’s history and its commitment to relevant international treaties, Myanmar may seem to be in compliance with international nonproliferation efforts. However, the commitment of Myanmar’s military to these principles has repeatedly been called into question.

In 2001, the junta ruling Myanmar, formally known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), negotiated with Russia for a nuclear research reactor. This came after Myanmar’s initial request to the IAEA for a research reactor in 2000. The agency required Myanmar to meet its minimum standards for reactor safety and regulatory infrastructure, including regular inspections. Compliance would have meant significant restrictions on potential weaponization of the technology. 

Myanmar’s military instead opted for the path of least resistance and attempted to acquire Russian assistance to develop nuclear capabilities. The effort was led by former Burmese Ambassador to the United States U Thaung and a U.S.-trained nuclear scientist, Thein Pow Saw. The partnership raised concerns, particularly from observers who noted that “the Russian-made nuclear-research reactor that the Burmese authorities sought to acquire is similar to the 5-megawatt research reactor that the then-Soviet Union installed at Yongbyon in North Korea in 1965, from which North Korea later extracted plutonium for a nuclear device.”

The deal for the Russian nuclear reactor soon collapsed, but concerns surrounding Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions further intensified when the country officially reestablished ties with North Korea in 2007. Since then, there have been numerous speculations and rumors surrounding North Korea’s nuclear cooperation in Myanmar, alongside continued nuclear outreach to Russia.

The North Korea Factor

After the Rangoon Bombing in 1983, which resulted in the death of 16 South Korean cabinet officials in Myanmar’s then-capital, Myanmar severed ties with North Korea. But with prolonged military rule and repercussions from the violent suppression of the 88 Revolution, Myanmar itself became a pariah state over the course of time. Consequently, under the suggestion of Lieutenant General Thein Htay, Than Shwe’s junta reached out to North Korea in the early 2000s. 

According to former Defense Intelligence Agency official Bruce Bechtol, Myanmar sent 30 of its technicians to North Korea to study reactor technology in 2003. Between 2003 and 2006, it is alleged that North Korean technicians were present in Myanmar to assist in building tunnels under Naypyidaw. Around this time, the Irrawaddy alleged ties with North Korea. In 2007, relations became official when North Korea re-established its embassy in Myanmar.

More light was shed on this shadowy relationship when a document was leaked on the SPDC delegation’s secret visit to North Korea in November 2008. During this visit, Burmese generals made several military site visits and met with North Korea’s Chief of Staff Kim Kyok Sik to strengthen military ties. The two sides signed an agreement focused on military modernization and transfer of tunneling technology. This leak heightened security by North Koreans for later visits and resulted in the execution of two Burmese officials. 

Allegations of illicit weapons trade between the two states persisted for the next decade. The international community took notice when a North Korean Il-62 that was en route to Iran from Mandalay was grounded by India in August 2008. The U.S. Navy pursued a North Korean vessel heading to Myanmar in the South China Sea in two separate incidents in 2009 and 2011. 

In 2009, Australian Ambassador to Myanmar Michelle Chan noted that a Burmese government official insisted that its nuclear ambition was only for peaceful purposes, but confirmed that Russia’s role in Burma’s nuclear development is oriented toward “software and training,” while North Korea is focused on “hardware.” Also in 2009, a story in the Sydney Morning Herald alleged Myanmar was receiving assistance from Russia and North Korea, supposedly to advance nuclear power plants and weapons programs.

Such reports attracted attention from the U.S. government. After expressing initial concern in 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially reiterated her concerns over Myanmar’s efforts to secure military technology from North Korea during her visit in 2011. However, the State Department emphasized that Washington was mainly concerned about missile sales, with a spokesperson saying “ we do not see signs of a substantial nuclear effort at this time.”

Sporadic allegations of a nuclear weapons program in Myanmar were made by dissident groups and non-governmental organizations throughout the 2010s. Most notably, Democratic Voice of Burma in 2010 cited documents and photos from a Burmese army defector, Sai Thein Win, who alleged relevant training in Russia and the existence of nuclear facilities near Mandalay and Magway. However, independent satellite image analysis from the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) later assessed that the facility was most likely a cement plant. 

Amid continued suspicion, after then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar in 2012 Myanmar denied any military cooperation with North Korea and officially announced it had scrapped its nuclear research plan. Myanmar later signed on to the IAEA’s additional protocol in 2013. Still, the SPDC continued efforts to build nuclear reactors with Russian assistance in 2014 and again in 2015

Myanmar’s interactions with North Korea also continued, including a weapons deal with North Korea in 2013. North Korean Ambassador Kim Sok Chol was replaced in 2016 after the United States placed sanctions on him over an alleged weapons trade with Myanmar via the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID). The incident suggests that Myanmar’s arms trade with North Korea existed at least until 2016. 

However, that same year the junta in Myanmar permitted a partial democratic transition, which resulted in Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy forming the government. Under the NLD, Myanmar’s nuclear program – and international concerns over such ambitions – faded. Instead, Myanmar signed on to additional relevant international conventions and protocols.

Since 2017, Myanmar has partly partaken in U.N. sanction efforts on North Korea. However, the 2018 United Nations Panel of Experts Report outlined that the arms trade between Myanmar and North Korea persisted through KOMID even after 2017. 

Post-Coup Concerns

After the junta’s egregious coup in 2021, North Korea and Myanmar’s junta outwardly resumed relations. In September 2023, Tin Maung Swe was designated as Myanmar’s ambassador to North Korea. The use of North Korean weaponry by the junta was documented by the Karen National Union in November 2023

Ever since the coup in 2021, Myanmar’s commitment to nonproliferation has again come under question. In 2023 alone, the junta was proactive in its attempt to secure nuclear capabilities by reaching out to China and Russia. Myanmar’s military regime insists – as it always has – that it is pursuing nuclear energy solely for peaceful uses. Indeed, the possibility that the junta’s primary interest lies in stabilizing its electronic power supply through nuclear power can’t be completely dismissed. But the precedent of North Korea first procuring plutonium through a Russian nuclear reactor cannot be ignored.

It is currently unclear whether Myanmar has acquired reprocessing capabilities for uranium enrichment. Most reports of Myanmar’s nuclear program remain unconfirmed, and even if taken at face value they would indicate extremely limited capabilities.

With that in mind, the recent indictment of an arms trafficker in possession of nuclear materials in Myanmar only raises further questions.

Notably, the Japanese national was alleged to be working not with the military regime, but with an unnamed ethnic armed group. Myanmar’s Shan State has been alleged to be a uranium mining site in the past, but rebels in the state have denied any links to nuclear trafficking.

Amid heightened global political tensions and extreme state fragility in Myanmar, concerns over the potential utilization of nuclear materials by non-state actors should carry weight for international security. The ongoing situation in Myanmar should be handled with dire caution.