Guest Column

US Turns Blind Eye on Burma’s North Korea Connection

By Dan Mcdevitt 22 July 2014

US President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at West Point on May 28. In his speech, Obama commended Burma on, among other things, its “movement away from partnership with North Korea in favor of engagement with America.”

Obama is right in stating that, thanks to US “diplomatic initiative,” America is forging a friendship with Burma. What’s less clear is if Burma is in fact distancing itself from the DPRK, global juggernaut of oppression.

A multitude of leaked US Embassy cables reveal long-held concerns about North Korea-supported weapons projects inside Burma. In August 2009, then-top US diplomat to Rangoon Larry Dinger came to the conclusion that “Something is certainly happening; whether that something includes ’nukes is a very open question which remains a very high priority for Embassy reporting.”

Now more than ever, that “very open question” demands an answer.

For a while now, the US has been aware of a certain suspicious facility in a town called Minbu in western Burma’s Magwe Division. An embassy cable from August 2004 quoted a Burmese engineering officer saying surface-to-air missiles were being built at the site:

“Some 300 North Koreans are working at a secret construction site….They are forbidden from leaving the construction site and…Outsiders are prohibited from entering…The North Koreans, aided by Burmese workers, are constructing a concrete-reinforced underground facility that is ’500ft from the top of the cave to the top of the hill above.’”

(Note: The cable expressed doubt at the large number of North Koreans stated to be at the site)

Embassy cables of yesteryear are now reverberating with alarming vibrancy. In February, four journalists from Burmese media Unity Journal published a front-page story detailing a similarly suspicious (and visually, nearly identical) compound in the township of Pauk, Magwe Division. The article ran complete with photos and local testimonies detailing what was described as a secret chemical weapons facility complete with foreign staff, uber-heavy security measures, and senior military helicopter visits (check out a full breakdown of the complex here).

The Burmese government’s response? Confiscate all copies of the journal and jail all the journalists involved. The Unity journalists, along with their CEO, are sitting in jail right now on charges of violating the State Secrets Act.

UPDATE: On July 10, the five Unity employees were sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor.

If that doesn’t reek of uranium, or at least weapons, then I don’t know what does.

The man behind the Minbu and Pauk sites is Gen. Thein Htay, director of the military’s Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI). The United States knows Thein Htay is a shady character; he is individually sanctioned on the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list—specifically for engaging in “the illicit trade of North Korean arms to Burma.”

So it’s reasonable to assume that the United States suspects Burmese military goons like Thein Htay are up to no good with these hidden factories. Yet Washington chooses to distinguish between Thein Htay and the government he serves, noting that the Thein Htay sanctions “[do] not target the Government of Burma.”

The renewed Burma-US relationship is clearly not deterring Thein Htay, as nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis points out: “Since the Obama Administration began to engage Burma to encourage a transition to democracy, the Directorate of Defense Industries has expanded.”

When it comes to nonproliferation, Burma repeatedly pays lip service to the international community. The government has been saying for years that it’s “preparing” to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that Burma signed in 1993.

Two decades seems like enough time to ratify a document. For comparison, the United States and China (among others) signed the CWC on Jan. 13, 1993 and ratified it in 1997.

Despite Burma’s failure to ratify the CWC, the first US/UK Nonproliferation Dialogue, “Myanmar and the Nonproliferation Regime: Sharing Perspectives,” held in Rangoon in February, was met with generally positive reviews. Some 45 participants, including nuke specialists, military officials and the like from Burma, the United States and Britain found that:

“Myanmar’s interest in opening to the world and in endorsing international rules and norms is real… [They have] begun and [are] fully committed to the process of ratifying and implementing the CWC…While other countries attack or condemn various ‘noncompliance’ lists, Myanmar focuses on how to get off these lists. The willingness is there; what’s needed is the capacity.”

Poor Burma. It wants to ratify the CWC and comply with international standards so bad; it just doesn’t know how.

The biggest takeaway from the talks should’ve been what the Burmese didn’t say:

“Myanmar participants did not comment on Myanmar-North Korea relations, even though the subject was raised several times by US and UK participants.”

Burma might not be great at ratifying international conventions, but they sure are good at misleading a crowd of Western countries. It helps when many in the West are bent on seeing the Burma that works best for them. President Thein Sein and his military-backed government threw out a little bait and the United States and others took it.

The United States needs to focus on ensuring that Burma makes good on its commitments, one of which should be that Burma ratify the CWC. This is especially important as the US military seeks to increase ties with Burma’s military, known as the Tatmadaw. Engaging with the Burmese military now would serve to embolden and legitimize the Tatmadaw; the United States should not endorse what it cannot see.

The notion that alleged democratization in Burma will magically answer the “very open question” of Burma’s nuclear ambitions is sorely mistaken. What compounds this miscalculation is the fact that, so far, Burma’s marshmallowy “transition to democratization” has been at best minimal and at worst farcical.

We’ve seen Burmese journalists thrown in jail for asking the wrong questions. The United States needs to step up and ask the Burmese government those very same questions: What are you and the North Koreans building up there in the hills?

Dan McDevitt is the communications and development coordinator for the US Campaign for Burma. A version of this article first appeared on the USCB blog on May 28, 2014.