Nuclear Matter
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, July 23, 2024


Nuclear Matter

By SIMON ROUGHNEEN Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In this photo taken on July 29, North Korea's Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun hits the great bell as he visits Burma's famed Shwedagon Pagoda. (Photo: AP)

BANGKOK — New revelations about North Korea's nuclear weapons program could have implications for Burma, after US scientist Siegfried Hecker revealed over the weekend that he been shown "more than 2,000 centrifuges" for enriching uranium—part of the process for making nuclear fuel or weapons—during a recent visit to North Korea, where he said he also viewed a new light-water reactor, which, when fueled with uranium, is the most common type of nuclear reactor.

"This is obviously a disappointing announcement," said Stephen Bosworth, the US Envoy on North Korea, adding that "it is also another in a series of provocative moves.”

Dr. Robert Kelley, the former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) scientist, told The Irrawaddy that the Americans who saw the North Korean centrifuge plant last week were stunned by the sophistication they witnessed. “It has a completely modern control room, nothing like what those Americans have seen in other DPRK [North Korean] facilities”, he said, and concluded that the US “underestimated them.”

Kelley contributed to a Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) report which aired on Al-Jazeera on June 4, which was based on documents and photographs smuggled out of Burma by Sai Win, a defector from the country's military. Kelley maintains that “what we have seen in Burma is intent to build a nuclear program.”

The latest North Korea revelations come amid some contention regarding Burma's alleged nuclear weapons program. On Nov. 15, as the world focused on the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, a ProPublica/PBS report cited Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director of the IAEA and one-time colleague of Kelley's, who said that the evidence provided in the DVB report is inconclusive. "There is no one single piece which puts your mind at rest telling that this is solely for nuclear purposes and for nothing else,” said Heinonen.

This report follows a June 29 critique of the DVB report published by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), at the request of US Senator Jim Webb, who advocates engagement with the military junta in Burma. In his ensuing letter to Sen. Webb, ISIS Director David Albright dismisses DVB as having ”a strong agenda,” and later suggested that Kelley assumed that Burma is attempting to make nuclear weapons and then looked at Win's pictures "in a biased way ascribing nuclear purposes to them," according to a report on the ProPublica website.

ProPublica is a US-based investigative news organization, and winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for work on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by journalist Sheri Fink. According to the ProPublica article, which is linked to the ISIS page focusing on Burma, “an examination by ProPublica and the PBS program “Need to Know” has found that the question of Burma's nuclear ambitions is much less settled than Kelley contends.”

Kelley says that ProPublica approached him two weeks after the DVB report came out, saying that they had “their own information that they said supported our assessment of a nuclear weapons program in Burma.”

According to Kelley: “They provided two separate Burmese defector debriefings of their own that did specifically talk about a Burmese nuclear weapons program and provided details that supported our main source, such as training in Moscow universities.”

Kelley was interviewed by ProPublica in June, but its offer to take him to Thailand to meet the two other defectors never came to fruition, he says.

Kelley has pointed out on the ProPublica website that Heinonen misread his report for DVB, and says that before the DVB report was broadcast: “Albright declined to even look at the information when I offered to share it with him when it was brand new and collaborate on a joint analysis.”
Later, Albright told Sen. Webb in his letter that “the standards of analysis in the recent reports regarding the conclusion that there exists a nuclear weapons program in Myanmar were not very high.”

Kelley says that he is coming under a lot of pressure to back away from his assessment that Burma is working on a nuclear weapons program. However, the latest revelations about North Korea might prompt some additional concern about what might be taking place in Burma, even if the hearsay so far about direct nuclear cooperation is “too weak to cite,” in Kelley's words.

However, there is ample evidence of ballistic missile and other conventional military cooperation between the two countries.

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