Pariah Partners in Arms
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, April 23, 2024


Pariah Partners in Arms

By Andrew Selth MARCH, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.3

(Page 2 of 3)

Burma was, and remains, short of foreign exchange, but produces rice and other primary products for export. For its part, North Korea has a massive arms industry, and is happy to sell weapons to whichever country wants them. During the mid-1990s, Pyongyang was facing a widespread famine and even now malnutrition remains a major problem. The way was thus open for the Rangoon regime to pay for its North Korean weapons purchases with rice, timber and marine products. There have even been suggestions that Rangoon has provided Pyongyang with narcotics in return for arms. Whether or not this is true, it would appear that barter arrangements have not been sufficient to meet Rangoon’s wish for more sophisticated, and expensive, weapon systems.

Strategic Weapons

The Tatmadaw has been interested for some time in acquiring a submarine, and has sent a number of Burma Navy officers to Pakistan to undertake "submarine training." In early 2002 the junta reportedly opened discussions with Pyongyang on the purchase of one or two submarines. Designs considered included the Yugo class midget submarine and the Sang-O class mini submarine. Rangoon ultimately opted to purchase one Sang-O class boat, but was forced to abandon the deal in late 2002. It appears that the cost of the submarine, and perhaps belated recognition of the technical difficulties of keeping it operational, scuppered the project.

The junta is believed also to want short-range ballistic missiles, or SRBMs. In the late 1990s, there were rumours circulating among the diplomatic community in Rangoon that China had agreed to sell Burma some M-11 SRBMs, similar to those which had earlier been provided to Pakistan. More recently, there have been unconfirmed reports that Rangoon is interested in acquiring a number of Hwasong (Scud-type) SRBMs from North Korea. A secret meeting to discuss such a deal was reportedly held in Rangoon in August 2003, while another was supposedly held in Phuket, Thailand, in October that year. The latest variants of this missile are capable of ranges of up to 500 km with a 770 kg conventional warhead.

The submarine sale seems to have been shelved for the time being and, even if a missile deal has already been struck, any delivery of SRBMs is likely to be some years away. They remain a worrying prospect, but of even greater concern to strategic analysts is the possibility that the junta may have drawn the same conclusions from the 2003 Iraq War as Pyongyang appears to have done, and is now seeking to acquire a nuclear weapon to use as a bargaining chip against the US and its allies.


In November 2003 the Far Eastern Economic Review suggested that Pyongyang had taken over from Moscow as the source of Burma’s nuclear technology. North Korean technicians were reportedly seen unloading large crates and heavy construction equipment from trains at Myothit, "the closest station to the central Burmese town of Natmauk, near where the junta hopes to build a nuclear research reactor." In addition, North Korean civil aircraft have reportedly been seen landing at military airfields in the area. The implication of the article was that Pyongyang was providing equipment and materials to build a nuclear reactor. These developments coincided with the arrival in Rangoon of representatives of the Daesong Economic Group, a sub-division of Bureau 39, which is responsible for a range of clandestine activities on behalf of the North Korean leadership. The small research reactor Burma hoped to get from Russia was said to be unsuited for the manufacture of fissile material, but Pyongyang is able to offer Burma other options, and has a record of proliferating nuclear technologies.

In a separate report, it was stated that 80 Burmese military personnel had departed for North Korea in November 2003 to study "nuclear and atomic energy technology." If true, this story would appear to confirm Pyongyang’s readiness to share its nuclear expertise with Burma. Yet the Tatmadaw has taken delivery of artillery pieces, and probably acquired other conventional weapons from North Korea, including SSMs. Some training in North Korea in their maintenance and use would be a logical part of any arms deal. It can also be assumed that any SRBM sale to Burma would be accompanied by training programs in North Korea. It does not automatically follow that all members of the Tatmadaw leaving for Pyongyang are going there to study nuclear technologies—peaceful or otherwise.

The junta has firmly denied that it has any plans to acquire missiles (presumably SRBMs) or weapons of mass destruction.

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