Many minor Wikileaks scoops have attracted media notice—like the fact that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi apparently always travels with a buxom Ukrainian “nurse”—but one frightening disclosure in particular has not received nearly enough attention. In several cables written from the U.S. embassy in Rangoon, the largest city (and former capital) of Burma, diplomats provided information about the Burmese junta’s potential cooperation with North Korea, including details of what may be nascent nuclear and missile programs.
In one cable, from back in 2004, American officials reported that sources told them North Korean workers potentially were helping the junta build a ballistic missile program at one secret military site inside Burma. In another cable, a source told U.S. officials of reports that Burma is importing significant quantities of ore, possibly in order to be refined into uranium. In still another cable, sources reported on more details of covert military co-operation between Burma and North Korea, including on potential nuclear production.
The fact that two of the world’s most repressive and opaque regimes could be collaborating on nuclear and missile technology is disturbing enough. But nearly as disturbing is that reports of this collaboration have been surfacing for years, mostly among Burmese exiles—yet, until recently, diplomats mostly shrugged these stories off. Indeed, foreign governments know so little about (or are so disinterested in) Burma that the junta may have been able to start building a nuclear program with scarcely anyone knowing or caring. Save Kim Jong Il, that is.
The first reports that the junta might be launching nuclear and missile programs started filtering out of Burma at least five years ago, from exiles and several foreign intelligence analysts. These reports were picked up by news outlets run by Burmese exiles, such as the Democratic Voice of Burma, a radio station based in Norway. Last winter, the respected Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) published a report detailing a range of suspicious sites in Burma and Burmese purchases of sophisticated machine tools as well as other technology that would have little civilian use. Yet, as recently as a year ago, when I spoke with several top Asian officials about the potential of a Burmese nuclear program, they pooh-poohed the possibility, saying that they doubted the junta had any real intention to build nukes, or the capabilities to get it done.
Just last month, a United Nations investigation found further evidence that North Korea was providing nuclear equipment banned for export to Burma. Proof that something problematic might be going on, in other words, is right under our noses. But, while some senior U.S. policymakers, like Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, recognize the nuclear threat in Burma, they seem to be in the minority. Several months ago, the investigative reporting outfit ProPublica reported that many officials in the U.S. government have rejected findings that suggest Burma may be working to obtain nuclear and missile capability.
Why won’t foreign governments consider the possibility? Denying that Burma could be trying to construct a nuclear or missile program fits into a larger pattern of mistaken thinking about the junta—a pattern that involves seeing the regime as crazy, unpredictable, or even stupid. This attitude is evident in much of the media coverage of the country, which focuses on the junta’s superstitions—it has used astrologers to help it pick propitious dates—or other bizarre tendencies. In conversations with officials from another, wealthier Asian nation last year, I was repeatedly told how hard it was to deal with the junta because its leaders have little education. Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has been blunter, telling American diplomats, in one conversation captured in a Wikileaks-released cable, that the junta is “dense.”
To be sure, building a nuclear program is a serious undertaking—witness the trouble Iran is having—and the impoverished and relatively isolated Burmese junta would face an uphill climb. What’s more, to produce a nuclear program, Burma would likely have to alienate its major patron, China, which certainly has no interest in having another nuclear state right on its border. And, even if the junta is importing workers and knowledge from North Korea, that doesn’t absolutely mean it will, or can, build nukes or missiles.
But, as I have written previously for TNR, the junta often has the last laugh with the international community. Twice before, in 1995 and 2002, the regime released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and then used her freedom to gain what it wanted from the international community: increased investment as well as membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In both cases, outsiders hailed a new era of reform—but, both times, when the junta had gotten what it wanted, it put Suu Kyi back into jail. (She was released again a few weeks ago and, for the time being, remains free.) The regime then continued keeping its people under mercilessly tight control, violating their most basic rights.
There could be another explanation for U.S. denial of Burma’s nuclear ambitions: Burma expert Bertil Lintner has suggested in the Asia Times that some lower-ranking U.S. officials may be trying to play down evidence of a nuclear program so as not to threaten the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement with the junta. But even if this were the reason—in whole or in part—for Washington’s quiet approach, it would still be yet another example of U.S. naivete when it comes to Burma. After all, engagement doesn’t seem to be working: Another Wikileaks-released cable reveals that U.S. officials have suggested junta leader Than Shwe might be willing to make compromises in order to gain closer relations with the United States—compromises that we have yet to see.
In the end, neither the hope of engagement nor a faith in the regime’s essential incompetence seem like good reasons to play down the nuclear issue. To be fair, the Obama administration doesn’t lack for major headaches around the world. But it might be time to add this one to the list.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.