BURMA’s isolated military junta is building a secret nuclear reactor and plutonium extraction facilities with North Korean help, with the aim of acquiring its first nuclear bomb in five years, according to evidence from key defectors revealed in an exclusive Herald report today.
The secret complex, much of it in caves tunnelled into a mountain at Naung Laing in northern Burma, runs parallel to a civilian reactor being built at another site by Russia that both the Russians and Burmese say will be put under international safeguards.
Two defectors were extensively interviewed separately over the past two years in Thailand by the Australian National University strategic expert Desmond Ball and a Thai-based Irish-Australian journalist, Phil Thornton, who has followed Burma for years.
One was an officer with a secret nuclear battalion in the Burmese army who was sent to Moscow for two years’ training; the other was a former executive of the leading regime business partner, Htoo Trading, who handled nuclear contracts with Russia and North Korea.
Their detailed testimony brings into sharp focus the hints emerging recently from other defector accounts and sightings of North Korean delegations that the Burmese junta, under growing pressure to democratise, is seeking a deterrent to any foreign ‘‘regime change’’. Their story will ring alarm bells across Asia. ‘‘The evidence is preliminary and needs to be verified, but this is something that would completely change the regional security status quo,’’ said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the head of Thailand’s Institute of Security and International Studies, yesterday.
‘‘It would move Myanmar [Burma] from not just being a pariah state, but a rogue state – that is, one that jeopardises the security and wellbeing of its immediate neighbours.’’
Washington is increasingly concerned that Burma is the main nuclear proliferation threat from North Korea, after Israel destroyed in September 2007 a reactor the North Koreans were apparently building in Syria.
Professor Ball said another Moscow-trained Burmese army defector was picked up by US intelligence agencies early last year. Some weeks later, Burma protested to Thailand about overflights by unmanned surveillance drones that were apparently launched across Thai territory by US agencies. These would have yielded low-level photographs and air samples, in addition to satellite imagery.
At a meeting with Asian leaders, including some from Burma and North Korea, in Thailand last week, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and other foreign ministers won promises from the Burmese they would adhere to United Nations sanctions on North Korean nuclear and missile exports.
China and other Asian nations had recently helped persuade Rangoon to turn back a North Korean freighter, the Nam Kam 1, that was being shadowed by US warships on its way to Burma with an unknown cargo. A month ago, Japanese police arrested a North Korean and two Japanese for allegedly trying to export illegally to Burma a magnetic measuring device that could be used to develop missiles.
Professor Ball, who has studied the Burmese military for several years, said the evidence from two well-placed sources demanded closer study: ‘‘All we can say is these two guys never met up with each other, never knew of each other’s existence, and yet they both tell the same story basically.
‘‘If it was just the Russian reactor, under full International Atomic Energy Agency supervision, which the Russians keep insisting is their policy and the Burmese may have agreed to with that reactor, then the likelihood of them being able to do something with it in terms of producing fissionable fuel and designing a bomb would be zero.
‘‘I’d be more worried about a meltdown like Chernobyl … It’s the North Korean element which adds the danger to it.’’
North Korea’s interest could be a combination of securing a supply of uranium from Burma’s proven reserves, earning hard currency, and keeping its plutonium extraction skills alive in case it agrees to fully dismantle its own Yongbyon nuclear complex. ‘‘Do they want another source of fissionable plutonium 239 to supplement what they get from their Yongbyon reactor?’’ Professor Ball said.