From Foes to Friends: Burma and North Korea

A report by a Swedish journalist has appeared which seems to confirm North Korean links to the digging of an extensive network of tunnels near the new Burmese capital city, Naypyidaw. The purpose of the tunnels is unclear, with some analysts suggesting they provide an added layer of security for an increasingly paranoid regime, while others say they may be part of a complex web of murky dealings aimed at an eventual nuclear weapons program.

According to photographs obtained by Bertil Lintner and printed alongside the piece, North Korean engineers worked at the tunneling site from 2003 until at least 2006, and maybe later. In the photographs, reprinted by Yale Global on June 9th, North Koreans can be seen coming out of what is described as a government-owned guest house. In addition, there are images of a number of tunnel entrances purported to be part of the network.

Lintner suggests that the North Korean role in the project probably derives from Pyongyang’s own extensive tunneling experience. According to a 2005 talk given by the head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) and reported by the Joongang Ilbo, North Korea “has constructed 8,200 underground facilities, including 180 munitions factories, to house key government offices and military command posts in case of war.” International security expert Franklin Kramer, in his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2000, also asserted that North Korea has “a great number of underground facilities.”

In addition, the existence of the Burmese tunnels is backed-up by a report released by the Democratic Voice of Burma in January of this year. In the report, an unidentified Burmese laborer who worked on the site for some three months said, “There were about five groups with about 50 construction workers in each. We often saw North Koreans there, about every five days.”

“Some people said it is a weapons facility they are building with assistance from North Korean scientists,” the anonymous worker claimed.

This has inevitably led to talk of a clandestine Burmese nuclear weapons program, which an on-again-off-again deal made with Russia to build a 10MW research reactor “for medical purposes” has done nothing to dispel. The United States has voiced its considerable dissatisfaction with the plan; in a 2007 State Department briefing, spokesperson Tom Casey said the U.S. “would be concerned about the possibility for accidents, for environmental damage, or for proliferation simply by the possibility of fuel being diverted, stolen, or otherwise removed.”

Despite the differences between the fuel used in a uranium research reactor and that required for weaponization, there is concern that Burma might be capable of following the route North Korea took at Yongbyon, where an even smaller 5MW research reactor was pressed into service to produce plutonium for weapons. In a 2007 issued of Foreign Affairs, two former U.S. government officials concurred, “Western intelligence officials have suspected for several years that the (Burmese) regime has had an interest in following the model of North Korea and achieving military autarky by developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons,” they alleged.

Meanwhile, Burmese-North Korean relations appear strong in other areas, too. A June 11th report in the Irrawaddy newspaper reported on a Chosun Central News Agency (KCNA) report of cultural ties between the two nations. The report announced, “a meeting, film show and photo exhibition were held in Myanmar and a news briefing and film show in Russia from June 1 to 3,” where Myanmar is the alternative name for Burma.

Furthermore, Htay Oo, Secretary-General of the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a group loyal to the Burmese government, is said by the KCNA to have told the audience at an event marking the 45th anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s accent to the Workers’ Party Central Committee, “One of the feats performed by Kim Jong Il in leading the Party and revolution to a shining victory, shouldering upon himself the destiny of the country and nation is that he has strengthened and developed the Workers’ Party into a guiding force of the Sungun revolution.”

“Sungun,” or military-first politics, seems to be something North Korea and Burma both have in common.