RANGOON—Naypyidaw has denied the existence of a bilateral nuclear program with North Korea as reports emerge that a shipment of uranium enrichment material for missile development was intercepted being transported to Burma via China.
The cargo of around 50 metal pipes and 15 high-specification aluminum alloy bars was seized by Japan on Aug. 22, according the Asahi Shimbun Japanese news agency. According to the report, some of the cargo was of the high strength needed for centrifuges for a nuclear weapons program.
However, speaking with The Irrawaddy on Monday, Burmese President’s Office Director Zaw Htay said, “We have no nuclear ambition.”
He also said that Burma has no such deal with North Korea. Naypyidaw will respect and obey regulations of the UN Security Council and has agreed to sign a nuclear pact, he explained. “We have made a promise and will obey precisely,” said Zaw Htay.
Naypyidaw announced the signing of an international agreement to declare all nuclear facilities and materials last week. It will also allow more scrutiny by UN nuclear inspectors, according to the deal.
The disputed cargo was reportedly destined for Rangoon-based construction company Soe Min Htike, which the US believes is a front for Burma’s military procurement, according to Asahi Shimbun.
Some observers said that the material was likely to be used for missile development rather than a nuclear program.
Bertil Lintner, a veteran journalist who has written on the subject for many years, told The Irrawaddy that Burma does not have nuclear connections with North Korea but is developing missiles. “The cooperation with North Korea is about missiles,” he said. “And that is still continuing—North Korean technicians are still there working on the missile program.”
He said that technology for scud-type missiles has been imported from North Korea with Pyongyang technicians involved in military infrastructure projects—building tunnels and underground bunkers at several places in Burma. They have also exported missile technology and assistance on the ground, he added.
Lintner also claimed that Naypyidaw did once conduct nuclear research in Russia where Burmese scientists were sent.
“[The Burmese authorities] asked the Indians for help but they were turned down, so they began sending people to Russia. [Vice-Snr-Gen] Maung Aye and [ex-Gen] U Thaung were the brains behind Burma’s nuclear research program,” said Lintner.
Burma Army defector Maj Sai Thein Win, who fled the country in February 2010, said that he spent five years at Moscow State Technical University studying liquid-fueled rocket engines design for missiles.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Sai Thein Win said that before leaving for Russia, he attended a May 2001 address to some 300 officers by Maung Aye, then Burma’s second highest ranking general, at the National Defense College in Rangoon.
“[Maung Aye] said they wanted us to study about rockets and nuclear reactors. They also said they needed weapons and long-range missiles to protect the country,” Sai Thein Win was quoted as saying.
In November 2008, current Lower House Speaker ex-Gen Shwe Mann reportedly led a secret delegation to North Korea where he signed an MoU on bilateral military ties with Pyongyang’s armed forces chief during a seven-day visit, but he has since denied that a nuclear program exists.
North Korea was supposed to build or supervise the construction of special Burmese military facilities, including tunnels and caves in which missiles, aircraft and even naval ships could be hidden, according to the leaked MoU.
According to the Asahi Shimbun report, Japanese government officials believe North Korea acquired the aluminum alloy from China. They said North Korea is unlikely to own the technology needed to produce such material.
Sources told Asahi Shimbun that the illicit shipment was loaded onto the 17,138-ton Wan Hai 215, a Singapore-registered cargo vessel operated by a Taiwanese shipping company, in Dalian on July 27. The material was offloaded on Aug. 9 and placed aboard the 27,800-ton Wan Hai 313 in Shekou, China.
On Aug. 14, the cargo was due to change ships again in Malaysia and then dock in Rangoon Port the following day. However, the US asked the Taiwanese shipping company not to proceed with the transshipment in Malaysia after learning about the possible contents. The Wan Hai 313 entered Tokyo Port on Aug. 22 where it was examined by Japanese officials who found the material in question.