Mystery Surrounds North Korean Tunnel-building in Burma
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Mystery Surrounds North Korean Tunnel-building in Burma

By THE IRRAWADDY Tuesday, June 16, 2009


North Korea has been helping Burma build an extensive network of tunnels in its new capital, Naypyidaw, and in Shan State, as an underground shelter for the government and “for other unknown purposes,” according to the Burma expert and author Bertil Lintner.

Lintner obtained photographs believed to show North Korean experts employed on the secret project, and they illustrate an article he wrote for the US Web site YaleGlobal online.

In an interview with The Irrawaddy, Lintner discusses developments pointing to a closer relationship between North Korea and Burma:

Bertil Lintner

Question: We have seen your recent article in Yale Global online magazine on North Korea’s involvement in tunnel construction. What do you know about tunnels being built around Naypyidaw and in Shan State? Do you think the Burmese junta is worried about foreign invasion or are the generals just paranoid?

Answer: There has been a lot of digging and tunneling since the SPDC decided to move the capital to Naypyidaw. This is hardly surprising as most governments prefer to have certain more sensitive activities out of sight of preying eyes. Even the government of the United States does that.

Some of the tunneling is also fairly innocent and connected with the construction of new hydroelectric power projects in the area. But then there are underground meeting halls as well as underground storage facilities.

This may well reflect the regime's paranoia. They are afraid of US air strikes similar to those against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. This fear may be totally unjustified, but it's there.

And then, of course, there is always the possibility of a new uprising against the regime. The regime has not forgotten that, in 1988, several government buildings were taken over by anti-government demonstrators. It is quite clear that the military feels much more secure in their new capital, both above and under ground.

Q: Analysts believe that a closer relationship between the regimes of North Korea and Burma is cause for concern. What do you think would be the consequences of a further warming of their relationship?

A: The alleged North Korean involvement in designing and/or building the underground installations in and near Naypyidaw is important. The North Koreans are excellent tunnel-builders, having moved most of their defense installations in their own country underground and dug tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone that separates North from South Korea.

Unlike the SPDC's other business partners, who want to be paid in cash, the North Koreans usually accept barter trade agreements. That suits the SPDC as well.

And both North Korea and Burma are ruled by regimes that have been condemned internationally for human rights abuses and other forms of repression. It is quite natural that the Burmese and North Korean governments "have found" each other. And with the memories of the 1983 Rangoon bombing fading rapidly, it is plausible to assume that we will see more and closer cooperation between Burma and North Korea.

But the rest of the region is definitely not pleased with this development, and it remains to be seen what action the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will take, if any, to pull Burma away from North Korea.

Q: Burma has bought a nuclear reactor from Russia but nothing has since been heard about the project. While the regime says the project has a peaceful purpose, it is interesting to note that Burma’s fledgling nuclear program, with Russian assistance, and its mysterious connections to North Korea arouse only suspicion and concern in the region. According to Burmese exiles in Thailand, the Russians and North Koreans are assisting the Burmese in developing nuclear capability. How do you view these suspicions and concerns?

A: I think many outsiders are very concerned about all sorts of cooperation between the North Koreans and the Burmese authorities, but if that also included cooperation in the nuclear field, I think many countries in the region and beyond would be alarmed.

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Moe Aung Wrote:

Russia is already known to be helping the junta build nuclear reactors at Magwe. This shouldn't surprise anyone. The nuclear club may blackball the rest of the world but why would anyone follow their rules—one rule for them, another for the rest of us?

It's only logical that unless you have nuclear capability yourself you are very likely to be bullied by the nuclear powers. If Pakistan and North Korea have it, why not Burma or Papua New Guinea? Whether you can afford it or not is beside the point. India is a nuclear power with unparalleled poverty on full display, and it's a disgrace when your people can never stop worrying about where the next meal is coming from.

The junta is like the proverbial dog that's wandered into a roll of bamboo mat. They can't back out, and would only try and push their way forward.

Naypyidaw will be the generals' last stand against the peoples of Burma, not the US.

Yes, we should find a way to seal those tunnels once they've bolted into them.

Aung Thwin Wrote:
The US has its own nuclear weapon, and what about Burma? Burma has the right to have her own, too. Why we are trying to control other countries? Leave them alone. They have their own decision. Think about Section 8, food stamp, and welfare people in America.

Natkalay Wrote:
So it comes as no surprise. This latest plan is in fact complete withdrawal of the empty promises and fabrications they’ve made all over. It is an act of conceding and a signal of denying the truth. In other words, it is a fear of correctness. Shunning way is spurious and conspiratorial. With its own inferiority, they became permanent enemy of the state. Why? Because, they are brain-injured soldiers. All that they were doing is implanting fears among people and taking abuse of other’s disciplinarian values. Sprouted by vented mentality, the country they are governing is going to the dogs and producing sufferings in all forms. They have no solution for what they've done. Cowards always hide themselves when problems surface, but still want to stab from behind. No therapy for this kind of sickness.

KKK Wrote:
They (the junta) cannot escape by building tunnels. They have no place to hide.

SY Alam Wrote:
We are not concerned at all because North Korea is digging a graveyard for the SPDC generals. Very soon those tunnels are going to be their graveyard. Saddam Hussein tried to hide in a cave but he could not hide from a crime he committed on his people. Now is time for Than Shwe. You can run but you can not hide.

Min Myo Naing Wrote:
Three years ago I saw a North Korean ship with my own eyes at a container yard in Rangoon Port where I went along with a friend of mine who was a supervisor of a certain company. He had to take delivery of merchandise arrived from abroad. I asked him about the vessel moored alongside a big pontoon and he said according to his knowledge it was a Korean ship loading rice. But I felt doubt about the ship because two days before I arrived at the port I was aware of unusual things which went on in the area of that very port. Covered military logistical vehicles passed by a friend's apartment that was close to the port. It was a great opportunity for me to stay overnight at my friend's apartment and witness the military authorities' secret transfer of heavy things from the ship to somewhere I could not figure out. The continuous noise of vehicles woke me up and when I looked through the window I saw the military vehicles were moving in the dark in the wee small hours.

Eric Johnston Wrote:
Many Tatmadaw officers have been and are being trained in Russia, and the subjects of their studies are nuclear technology, rocket technology and tunnelling. Together these subjects look more ominous than any one subject alone.

The democratic movement should study how to seal tunnels once the generals have bolted into their holes.

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