The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
US Focus on Pyongyang Risks Overlooking Burma
By SIMON ROUGHNEEN Monday, August 10, 2009

While there is no hard evidence to demonstrate that the Burmese regime in Naypyidaw has been seeking to acquire or develop nuclear weapons, the circumstantial evidence is worrying when North Korea's track record is taken into account.

Recently, the secretary-general of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Surin Pitsuwan, said that there is still no clear evidence that Burma has such a nuclear facility, but that if it does exist, Burma would be forced to leave the regional bloc because all member states, including Burma, have signed a treaty pledging to maintain Asean as a nuclear-weapon free zone.

However, Burma's alleged proliferation partner, Pyongyang, is providing its neighbors and the US with a much more immediate and pressing nuclear challenge, and one which could lessen the urgency of any international response to the Burma issue.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy recently, Prof Mely Caballero Anthony of the National University of Singapore said, “Between the two, DPRK and the Korean peninsula issues would be more pressing for the US than Burma.”

So far the US has given conflicting signals.

At two US State Department press briefings last week, spokespersons refused to be drawn on the issue, despite claims published in the international media that the Burmese junta was trading uranium extracts for North Korean military hardware and technical expertise.

This reticence came despite US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's warning at an Asean meeting in Phuket in late July about a possible North Korea-Burma nuclear collaboration.
“We worry about the transfer of nuclear technology” from North Korea to Burma, Clinton said.

Her words were part of a highly publicized spat with both the junta in Burma and the Communist regime in Pyongyang, with the latter calling the US foreign secretary “a schoolgirl.”

Her husband, former US President Bill Clinton, received somewhat better treatment when he arrived in Pyongyang last Wednesday, on what was described by the White House as a “private humanitarian mission.”

During the visit, the former president secured the release of two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who worked for former Vice President Al Gore at his Current TV media company. The women were arrested by North Korean police after entering the country illegally from China.

Former President Clinton met Kim Jong-il and Kim Kye-gwan, Pyongyang's chief nuclear negotiator, hinting that there was more to the mission than just bringing the two women home safely.

In any case, Kim Jong-il was reportedly delighted to have such a high-profile emissary, perhaps vindicating his hardball strategy over the years.

As Con Coughlin noted in the Daily Telegraph: “The [Bill] Clinton administration handed over millions of dollars in aid, food, oil and even a nuclear reactor in the hope of persuading the North Koreans to ditch their military program. They simply took the aid and carried on with nuclear development regardless, so that by 2006 they were able to detonate a device.”

Nevertheless, Pyongyang still finds itself under pressure to resume the stalled six-nation talks over the future of its nuclear program. It has declared the six-party talks dead, apparently wanting bilateral talks with the US and a priori acceptance of its status as a nuclear power as the next step in any nuclear diplomacy.

This might explain the cautious words used by the US State Department spokespersons last week. During a briefing, spokesman Philip Crowley said: “I think over time, we would like to clarify with Burma more precisely the nature of its military cooperation. The [US] secretary was encouraged that Burma said that it would abide by its responsibilities under the sanctions that were recently passed by the UN, and we will be looking to see them implement those sanctions.”

When pressed on the specifics of the revelations by two Burmese defectors, who claimed to have inside knowledge of the military junta’s nuclear sites, Crowley said, “I’m not commenting on any particular facility.”

This exchange came just before former President Clinton’s mission, which at that stage had not been publicized. No doubt the US administration did not want to jeopardize the trip by making further comments on the allegations against the two rogue states.

Pyongyang has rattled its sabers vigorously since Obama took the office. It conducted a long-range missile test in April, then pulled out of the six-party talks with the US, Russia, South Korea, Japan and China.

Then, on May 25, the Kim Jong-il government undertook an underground nuclear test, prompting Obama to order increased missile defenses to be placed on Hawaii in response.

If the US and Pyongyang resume dialogue or if the US seeks to revive six-party talks down the line, it remains to be seen whether the links between North Korea and Naypyidaw will be up for discussion.

The director of The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center, Walter Lohman, told The Irrawaddy that the Burma issue “should be on the agenda of any resumption of six-party talks,” given that “it was the [US] secretary herself who validated the charges [of North Korea-Burma collaboration] a couple weeks ago in Phuket.”

While there is no “smoking gun” in Burma yet, the facts on the ground require verification. Whether this can be achieved by packaging the Burma issue into any future six-party talks remains to be seen.

Scott Snyder, adjunct senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, outlined to The Irrawaddy that any Burma inspections procedure "should first be addressed through the IAEA, with the board of the IAEA requesting that inspections of suspect sites in Burma be allowed. If a formal request is made and rejected, then the board of the IAEA may elect to refer the issue to the UN Security Council.  This is the same path that the issue of NK special inspections took during the first North Korea nuclear crisis in 1992-93. "

A separate UN Security Council process would be difficult, and potentially futile, given that Chinese consent would be required for any resolution requesting the Burmese junta to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.

Even then, as Prof Caballero Anthony noted, the Burmese generals would not be obliged to consent.

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