Tuesday, March 2, 2010

White House wary of growing military ties between Burma, N. Korea

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; 2:50 PM

The Obama administration is concerned that Burma is expanding its military relationship with North Korea and has launched an aggressive campaign to convince Burma's junta to stop buying North Korean military technology, U.S. officials said.

Concerns about the relationship -- which encompass the sale of small arms, missile components and, most worryingly, possible nuclear-weapons-related technology -- helped prompt the Obama administration last October to end the Bush-era policy of isolating the military junta, said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

So far, senior U.S. officials have had four meetings with their Burmese counterparts, with a fifth one expected soon. "Our most decisive interactions have been around North Korea," the official said. "We've been very clear to Burma. We'll see over time if it's been heard."

Criticism and questions have mounted from Congress and human rights organizations over the administration's new policy toward the Southeast Asian nation, which is also known as Myanmar. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and generally a supporter of the administration's foreign policy, has recently called for the administration to increase the pressure on Burma, including tightening the sanctions that the United States has imposed on the regime.

"Recent events have raised the profile of humanitarian issues there," Berman said Friday. "Support is growing for more action in addition to ongoing efforts."

Thus far, the engagement policy has not yielded any change in Burma's treatment of domestic opponents. On Friday, Burma's supreme court rejected opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's latest bid to end more than a decade of house arrest. The Nobel Peace prize laureate's National League for Democracy won elections in 1990, but the military, which has ruled Burma since 1962, did not cede power.

In recent months, the junta has also ramped up repression against political dissidents and ethnic groups, although it has released one aging dissident -- U Tin Oo -- after almost seven years in detention. Thousands of people have fled Burmese military assaults into China, Bangladesh and Thailand in the months following the U.S. opening. A report issued this week by the Karen Women Organization alleged that Burmese troops have gang-raped, murdered and even crucified Karen women as the soldiers have attempted to root out a 60-year-old insurgency by guerrillas of that ethnic minority.

On Feb. 10, a Burmese court sentenced a naturalized Burmese American political activist from Montgomery County to three years of hard labor, and allegedly beat him, denied him food and water, and placed him in isolation in a tiny cell with no toilet. Burma recently snubbed the United Nations' special envoy on human rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana, denying him a meeting with Suu Kyi and access to Burma's senior leadership.

"The bad behavior has increased," said Ernie Bower, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials argue -- and Bower and others agree -- that talking with Burma still is the best way forward, especially given the concerns about Burma's deepening military relationship with North Korea. It is also important to keep talking with Burma, said Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), because China is more than willing to replace U.S. influence in Burma and throughout Southeast Asia. Webb's trip to Burma last August -- the first by a member of Congress in a decade -- has been credited with giving the Obama administration the political cover to open up talks with the junta.

Underlining the administration's concerns with Burma is a desire to avoid a repeat of events that unfolded in Syria in 2007. North Korea is believed to have helped to secretly built a nuclear reactor there capable of producing plutonium. It was reportedly only weeks or months away from being functional before Israeli warplanes bombed it in September of that year.

"The lesson here is the Syrian one," said David Albright, president of the non-governmental Institute for Science and International Security and an expert on nuclear proliferation. "That was such a massive intelligence failure. You can't be sure that North Korea isn't doing it someplace else. The U.S. government can't afford to be blindsided again."

Burma is believed to have started a military relationship with North Korea in 2007. But with the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution last June banning all weapons exports from North Korea, Burma has emerged "as a much bigger player than it was," the senior American official said.

In a report Albright co-wrote in January titled "Burma: A Nuclear Wannabe," he outlined the case for concern about Burma's relations with North Korea. First, Burma has already signed a deal with Russia for the supply of a 10-megawatt thermal research reactor, although no construction of the research center had started as of September 2009. Second, although there are many unverified claims from dissident groups about covert nuclear sites in Burma, the report said "there remain legitimate reasons to suspect the existence of undeclared nuclear activities in Burma, particularly in the context of North Korean cooperation."

The report noted that the same company that aided the Syrians in constructing their nuclear facility is active in Burma. The company, Namchongang Trading (NCG), is sanctioned by U.N. Security Council. It is unclear what exactly NCG is doing in Burma, the report said, but its presence there "is bound to increase suspicions about such a sale."

In June 2009, Japanese authorities cracked a case that involved the sale of a magnetometer and other sensitive equipment that could be used to develop or manufacture nuclear weapons -- from a Beijing-based North Korean trading company to Burma.

Finally, the senior U.S. official noted that starting about eight years ago, a large number of Burmese students were going to Russia to study in nuclear-related fields. "It's not just dozens, it's hundreds," he said.

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