The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Rogue Brothers in Arms
By WAI MOE JULY, 2010 - VOLUME 18 NO.7

Analysts have long suspected North Korea of supplying Burma with weapons and technology. Has the Dear Leader become a role model for Than Shwe as well?

Burma and North Korea, two of the world’s most oppressive, isolated and secretive nations,  were previously not on speaking terms. But over the last two decades, Burma’s junta chief, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, and North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, have formed a disconcerting partnership of convenience that, due to recent events, has garnered increased attention from the international community.

Analysts, including Burma military expert Andrew Selth, say that for years Burma and North Korea have used a barter system whereby Burma exchanges primary products for North Korean military technologies. And in May, the seven-member UN panel monitoring the implementation of sanctions against North Korea confirmed in a report that Pyongyang is involved in banned nuclear and ballistic activities in Burma, Iran and Syria with the aid of front companies around the world.

Then on June 4, Al Jazeera aired a news documentary, prepared by the exiled Burmese news agency Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), which claimed that the ruling military junta in Burma is “mining uranium, converting it to uranium compounds for reactors and bombs, and is trying to build a reactor and/or an enrichment plant that could only be useful for a bomb.”

Despite the fact that the junta’s nuclear program appears to be in its primitive stages, if the allegations are true, then Burma is the first Southeast Asian nation with nuclear armament ambitions. And because of North Korea’s own nuclear capabilities, its clear desire to export  nuclear and ballistic missile technology and its renewed relationship with the Burmese regime, experts are scrambling to discern exactly what the ties between North Korea and Burma really consist of. 

According to some experts, the main influence North Korea has on Burma’s nuclear ambitions is that of a role model—by setting an example of what is possible once nuclear capability is achieved.

“Unfortunately, the lessons they [the junta] seem to be studying most closely these days are those being taught by North Korea. Kim Jong Il seems to be their role model for regime preservation and international relations, as he has successfully used the threat of nuclear weapons to wring a measure of respect from the international community,” said Kelley Currie in The Wall Street Journal.

The author of the DVB report, Robert Kelley, who is a nuclear scientist and former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said that Burma’s generals, over time, will  “seek more ways to hang onto power as their wealth grows ever larger and the dissatisfaction of the population threatens to oust them.”

Kelley said Burma’s leaders hope to develop a defensive military power that would “make foreign intervention very painful for an aggressor,” and which “signals its neighbors to leave them alone.”

“The model for this is North Korea. North Korea is too poor to threaten anyone except its immediate neighbors, but its possession of nuclear weapons inhibits any outside intervention in its repressive regime,” he said.

A high-ranking Burmese military intelligence officer, Aung Lynn Htut, who defected in 2005 when he was serving as an attaché at the Burmese embassy in Washington, said in the DVB report that the country’s top general has long wanted to emulate the example of Pyongyang.

“In 1992, when Snr Gen Than Shwe came to power, he thought that if we followed the North Korean example, we would not need to take account of America, or even care about China. In other words, when they have nuclear energy and weapons, others will respect us. They won’t dare to bully or occupy Myanmar [Burma]. For example, they won’t treat it like they treated Iraq. That is why they follow North Korea, ” said Aung Lynn Htut.

While acknowledging that the junta could use a missile and nuclear weapons program as a deterrent to an attack, some analysts speculate that the junta could also be using their nuclear program as an international bargaining chip.

“Perhaps they would go down the path of North Korea—of using the threat of a nuclear deterrent or a nuclear weapons program as a way of forcing concessions from their opponents, including an amelioration of international sanctions,” said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation, speaking to Radio Free Asia.

Aung Naing Oo, a Harvard-educated Burmese academic, agreed, telling Reuters that the military regime might try to emulate the tactics of North Korea and arm itself to gain leverage with the international community.

“It serves a purpose. The military knows that nuclear weapons are a short-cut to getting on the international radar and earning respect geopolitically,” he said.

In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, Aung Lynn Htut said, “The generals thought that they could also obtain nuclear warheads and that, once these warheads were mounted on the missiles, the United States and other powerful countries ... have much less leverage on the junta.”

According to, a military affairs website covering armed forces worldwide, another possibility is that Burma is partnering with North Korea to help it market and distribute North Korean nuclear weapons technology.

In a similar vein, Geoffrey Forden,  a weapons expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who reviewed the missile evidence for the DVB report, said in an article posted on that since shipments from North Korea are being closely monitored, Pyongyang may attempt to use Burma as an outsourced manufacturing and distribution site. “The spread of precision engineering worldwide has opened up the possibility of proliferation networks more as consulting engineering firms rather than one-stop-shopping centers,” he said.

Maybe most troubling to some analysts is the possibility that a powerful axis is being formed between China, North Korea and Burma, with Iran a possible partner as well.

Wade, noting that passage of Middle Eastern oil to China through Burma circumvents the Straits of Malacca, which could be blockaded by the US, said all three countries benefit from their interwoven relationship: the Shwe pipeline project gives the Burmese junta billions in revenues; China gets a secure supply of oil and gas; and North Korea now has a wealthy fellow “rogue” to trade with.

Regardless of whether North Korea serves as Burma’s role model, arms dealer, original equipment manufacturer or China’s proxy, Than Shwe’s desire to emulate North Korea and his ability to do so are two entirely different matters. To begin with, experts say Burma’s nascent nuclear program is far from coming to fruition.

According to Kelley, the generals don’t appear to have any coherent strategy for actually making a functioning nuclear weapon. “Nothing we have seen suggests Burma will be successful with the materials and component we have seen,” he said.

Stephen Herzog, an independent security policy analyst and an arms control consultant to the Federation of American Scientists, writing in the Stanford Review, said, “No one is claiming that Burma is even remotely close to a bomb, but small-quantity laser enrichment and weapon prototypes have no peaceful energy application. If the evidence provided by the defector is legitimate, these types of technologies could offer a clear sign of the junta’s current or past nuclear ambitions.”

“The intention is there, but the reality is very different,” said Alie Fowle, Kelley’s co-researcher on the DVB report.

Analysts say Burma’s conventional missile program, although itself a long way from becoming a reality, is much more of a medium-term threat than its nuclear program. Defectors interviewed for the DVB Report said the junta wants to develop missiles with a 3,000 to 4,000 kilometer range, long enough to reach the US military base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Forden told Radio Free Asia that he gives the junta five to 10 years to get a rocket launched and built, and much longer to come up with one that would have a serious range. He said Burma is just starting off in its missile program and its ability to develop an effective weapons program relies on its ability to import technology.

“It’s going to depend on how much foreign assistance they can get. And presumably they would get it from North Korea. If that goes through, as there were indications, then they could get ... a Nodong missile fairly rapidly—maybe one or two years,” said Forden, referring to the North Korean mid-range ballistic missile.

Experts say the technologies of developing nuclear warheads and short, middle and long-range missiles are two sides of the same coin: the combination of possessing these two technologies will change a nation into a nuclear power.

Between junta Gen Shwe Mann’s 2008 visit to North Korea, the UN report and reports by other Burma analysts such as Desmond Ball, there seems to be ample evidence that North Korea is involved in whatever nuclear activities Burma is engaged in. But the DVB report said that while North Korea may be involved in missile proliferation, there is no new evidence to suggest it is helping Burma to develop nuclear weapons.

“None of our evidence implies that North Korea has anything to do directly with evidence that we think points to a nuclear program,” Fowle said.

Admiral Robert Willard, head of the US Pacific command, told Reuters he was unaware of specific instances of nuclear cooperation between the two states, but was “certainly concerned about the relationship between North Korea and Burma given our [the US’s] lack of visibility in both regimes.”

Speaking before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2005, former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice described Burma and North Korea as two of the world’s “outposts of tyranny.” But in a globalized world, there is no such thing as an outpost, and it seems that Than Shwe may be using Rice’s designation of certain countries as “pariah states” as a road map to unite the rogue nations of the world.

Than Shwe may be a long way from developing a nuclear weapon, but his other long-standing dream of countering Burma’s pro-democracy forces and the United States and it allies by establishing close relationships with enemies of the West, beginning with North Korea, has never been closer to reality than it is today. 

For a detailed background account of Burma-North Korea relations by Wai Moe, go to

Burma-North Korea Chronology

1983—Burma breaks diplomatic relations with North Korea after North Korean agents attempt to assassinate the South Korean president on Burmese soil.

1992—Burma and North Korea secretly re-establish diplomatic ties.

1992 to 2006—Burmese junta keeps renewed ties with North Korea secret because it is working to establish relationships with Japanese and South Korean businesses.

2007—The junta publicly resumes diplomatic relations with North Korea.

2008—The junta’s No 3, Gen Shwe Mann, visits North Korea and signs a memorandum of understanding, officially formalizing military cooperation between Burma and North Korea.

2009—Desmond Ball releases a report based on information provided by Burmese defectors that says Burma established a “nuclear battalion” in 2000 and is building a nuclear reactor.

June 2009—a North Korean ship, the Kang Nam, is diverted from going to Burma after being trailed by the US navy.

April 2010—another North Korean ship, the Chong Gen, docks in Burma carrying suspicious cargo, allegedly in violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which restricts North Korea from arms deals and from trading in technology that could be used for nuclear weapons.

May 2010—UN panel says in a report that Pyongyang is involved in banned nuclear and ballistic activities in Burma

June 2010—The Democratic Voice of Burma issues a report based on extensive evidence provided by a Burmese defector that says the junta is attempting to produce nuclear weapons

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