US suspects North Korea and Burma participating in 'covert military' activities

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Map highlighting Magway Region in Burma, where Minbu is located.
Image: Dr. Blofeld based on work by Uwe Dedering.

In diplomatic cables released by the whistle blowing website Wikileaks on Friday, it is revealed that the United States embassy in Rangoon suspects the North Korean and Burmese military are participating in "covert military or military-industrial" activities. In the cables dating back as early as January 2004, the embassy reports the military activities could include the construction of a nuclear reactor in or near Minbu, along with "SAM missiles" and an underground facility with as many as 300 North Korean military personnel assisting the Burmese military in the construction. Burma is primarily controlled by its military.

In the January 2004 cable, a businessman reportedly told the U.S. embassy in Rangoon that "massive" barges were bringing in large pieces of equipment to Minbu from the Irawaddy River. He suggested that "the quantities involved as well as the diameter of the rebar suggested a project larger than 'factories.'" In the same cable, the U.S. acknowledges that rumors of a nuclear reactor being constructed in the area date back to 2002, with suspected Russian involvement. "Rumors of ongoing construction of a nuclear reactor are surprisingly consistent and observations of activity such as that described [sic] appear to be increasing," said Martinez, the reported cable author. According to a news report in March, The Irrawaddy claims Burma was close to completing at least three nuclear reactors. The country's leadership claims the nuclear research that is taking place is to be used for peaceful purposes.

1oz. uranium-238 under oil.
Image: Greenhorn1.

In August of the same year, the U.S embassy receives more information that North Korea military is assisting in the construction of "SAM missiles (surface to air missiles) of unknown origin" and an "underground, concrete reinforced" facility in Minbu. The construction allegedly includes buildings which would house at least "20 Burmese army battalions that will be posted near the site." The correspondent again says that the report "tracks with other information Embassy Rangoon and others have reported in various channels."

"This account is perhaps best considered alongside other information of various origins indicating the Burmese and North Koreans are up to something. Something of a covert military or military-industrial nature. Exactly what, and on what scale, remains to be determined," said McMullen, the reported cable author. He also admits that the number of North Koreans thought to be assisting the Burmese military "is much higher than our best estimates of North Koreans in Burma." According to the Agence France-Presse in 2002, citing an unnamed U.S State Department official, the U.S. warned Burma not to pursue a nuclear program saying that it expects Burma "to live up to its obligations [under the non-proliferation treaty] and to not pursue production of weapons grade fissile material." However a 2008 cable says that Burma may already be in possession of weapons grade uranium. The cable reports that a civilian tried to sell 2,000 kilograms of uranium-238 which "could be dug up" from the ground at a site in Kayah State. Uranium-238 could be used in the construction of nuclear weapons.

"A Burmese civilian met with members of USDAO [United States Defense Attaché Office] Rangoon and offered to sell Uranium-238. The individual had initially contacted the USDAO eight days prior with the offer. The individual provided a small bottle half-filled with metallic powder and a photocopied certificate of testing from a Chinese university dated 1992 as verification of the radioactive nature of the powder," said the cable. "The individual claimed to be able to provide up to 2000 kg of uranium-bearing rock from a location in Kayah State, and further stated if the U.S. was not interested in purchasing the uranium, he and his associates would try to sell it to other countries, beginning with Thailand," it added. The cable adds that the Burmese government was unaware that such a transaction was taking place and that they "would likely seize any additional samples or stocks of the material if aware of their existence." However, a cable in January of 2007 says that the Burmese military may have received a shipment of uranium at the end of that month. The "sensitive shipment" was said to have come from Singapore via shipping freighter.

"[An unnamed witness] claimed that metals are usually exported in blocks, whereas the bags in this shipment were filled with loose earth and mud. The source of the mixed ore, Maw Chi, is also a source for uranium, they claimed. Security was tighter than usual, surveillance was heavier, and officials paid closer attention to the movement of the shipment and activity at the port," said the cable. The cable author, 'Villarosa,' later states that the embassy in Rangoon was given allegedly detailed information on the shipping methods, weight and cost. No further cables have yet to be released on the matter.