Asia-Pacific

Nuclear Matter

North Korea shows off missiles at a military parade in September.

New revelations about North Korea's nuclear weapons program could have implications for Burma, after U.S. scientist Siegfried Hecker revealed last week that he had been shown "more than 2,000 centrifuges" for enriching uranium—part of the process for making nuclear fuel or weapons—during a recent visit to North Korea, where he said he also viewed a new light-water reactor, which, when fueled with uranium, is the most common type of nuclear reactor.

"This is obviously a disappointing announcement," said Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. envoy on North Korea, adding that "it is also another in a series of provocative moves."

Dr. Robert Kelley, the former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) scientist, said that the Americans who saw the North Korean centrifuge plant last week were stunned by the sophistication they witnessed. "It has a completely modern control room, nothing like what those Americans have seen in other DPRK [North Korean] facilities," he said, and concluded that the United States "underestimated them."

Kelley contributed to a Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) report that aired on Al-Jazeera on June 4, which was based on documents and photographs smuggled out of Burma by Sai Win, a defector from the country's military. Kelley maintains that "what we have seen in Burma is intent to build a nuclear program."

The latest North Korea revelations come amid some contention regarding Burma's alleged nuclear weapons program. On November 15, as the world focused on the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, a ProPublica/PBS report cited Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director of the IAEA and one-time colleague of Kelley's, who said that the evidence provided in the DVB report is inconclusive. "There is no one single piece which puts your mind at rest telling that this is solely for nuclear purposes and for nothing else," said Heinonen.

This report follows a June 29 critique of the DVB report published by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), at the request of U.S. Senator Jim Webb, who advocates engagement with the military junta in Burma. In his ensuing letter to Senator Webb, ISIS Director David Albright dismisses DVB as having "a strong agenda" and later suggested that Kelley assumed that Burma is attempting to make nuclear weapons and then looked at Win's pictures "in a biased way ascribing nuclear purposes to them," according to a report on the ProPublica website.

ProPublica is a U.S.-based investigative news organization, and winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for work on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by journalist Sheri Fink. According to the ProPublica article, which is linked to the ISIS page focusing on Burma, "an examination by ProPublica and the PBS program "Need to Know" has found that the question of Burma's nuclear ambitions is much less settled than Kelley contends."

Kelley says that ProPublica approached him two weeks after the DVB report came out, saying that they had "their own information that they said supported our assessment of a nuclear weapons program in Burma."

According to Kelley, "They provided two separate Burmese defector debriefings of their own that did specifically talk about a Burmese nuclear weapons program and provided details that supported our main source, such as training in Moscow universities."

Kelley was interviewed by ProPublica in June, but its offer to take him to Thailand to meet the two other defectors never came to fruition, he says.

Kelley has pointed out on the ProPublica website that Heinonen misread his report for DVB, and says that before the DVB report was broadcast, "Albright declined to even look at the information when I offered to share it with him when it was brand new and collaborate on a joint analysis."Later, Albright told Webb in his letter that "the standards of analysis in the recent reports regarding the conclusion that there exists a nuclear weapons program in Myanmar were not very high."

Kelley says that he is coming under a lot of pressure to back away from his assessment that Burma is working on a nuclear weapons program. However, the latest revelations about North Korea might prompt some additional concern about what might be taking place in Burma, even if the hearsay so far about direct nuclear cooperation is "too weak to cite," in Kelley's words.

However, there is ample evidence of ballistic missile and other conventional military cooperation between the two countries. Kelley warns "that we should not underestimate Burma, especially if they get outside help."

Speaking at Thailand's Foreign Correspondents Club recently, prior to the weekend revelations about North Korea, Kelley said of Burma's alleged nuclear weapons program, "There is no threat tomorrow, unless the DPRK, which has been helping, decides to do more, or Pakistan, which has been selling nuclear secrets to anyone who will buy, decides to help."

In a report published by ISIS in January, which Kelley and Albright co-authored, they said, "There remain legitimate reasons to suspect the existence of undeclared nuclear activities in Burma, particularly in the context of North Korean cooperation."

ProPublica reported that the Norway-based organization is "a leading opposition group," rather than a credible media outlet in its own right. However, according to a spokesperson for Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), "To be impartial is pretty hard for media," but added that "of course, some of the exiled media have clearly a stand in favor of the pro-democracy movement."

Prevented from operating commercially in their natural market, Burmese exile media groups such as DVB and The Irrawaddy are funded by a combination of philanthropic organizations, donor governments and agencies, as well as commercial media sales. In the eyes of RSF, "The fact that [exiled Burmese media] are funded by some international donors is not really impacting their editorial line." ProPublica itself is funded by a number of philanthropies, including the Sandler Foundation, The Ford Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others.

Burma is regarded as one of the least free media environments in the world, with a history of imposing lengthy jail terms on reporters caught sharing information with foreign or exile media, including DVB reporters. The exile media works closely with clandestine journalists inside Burma, seeking to bridge the information and news gap in the absence of Burmese alternatives that can operate without being curbed by the junta's censors.

Nine news journals in Rangoon were suspended on Monday for coverage of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, while foreign journalists were barred from entering the country to cover the November 7 elections. Amid widespread voter apathy and allegations of forced voting, advance voting and ballot stuffing, the regime proxy party took 76 percent of the vote. Before the election, "pro-engagement" voices propagated the view that the elections would open up some form of democratic space in Burma, even if they would not be free and fair.

This article was originally published by The Irrawaddy: www.irrawaddy.org/.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Simon Roughneen.

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