Burma Wants the Bomb
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Burma Wants the Bomb
Relations between Burma and North Korea have attracted intense attention in recent weeks, as suspicions grow that the two pariah states are joining forces in a bid to thwart international sanctions against them.
Two recent developments have greatly added to worries that these two countries are becoming a double threat to regional security.
The first was the departure of a North Korean cargo ship, the Kang Nam 1, from a port near Pyongyang on June 17. The ship is believed to be heading for Burma, and is currently being pursued by the US Navy, which may act on a recent UN resolution authorizing inspections of North Korean vessels suspected of carrying banned weapons or materials.
|Thakhin Chan Tun|
The second was the leaking of documents and video footage showing caves and tunnels being constructed in Burma with the help of North Korean engineers—possibly as part of a controversial nuclear program by the Burma junta.
To learn more about the possible significance of these events, The Irrawaddy recently interviewed Thakhin Chan Tun, a former diplomat who served as Burma’s ambassador to North Korea from 1974 to 1975.
Thakhin Chan Tun, who was also the ambassador to Canada from 1969 to 1974 and to the People’s Republic of China from 1974 to 1976, is a veteran politician who is still actively working for national reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Burma.
Question: Thakhin Chan Tun, you served as Burma’s ambassador to North Korea from 1974 to 1975. Can you briefly describe bilateral relations between the two countries from then until now?
Answer: It was very good at that time. They paid great attention to us, possibly because it was the beginning of our diplomatic relationship. But then, in 1983, Burma invited a South Korean government delegation to visit, and North Korea plotted to assassinate them at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Rangoon, killing 22 people. The South Korean president was fortunate to be late arriving at the place. They [the North Koreans] are the kind of people who can commit such crimes. They dare to do everything.
Now the US has imposed sanctions on Burma and the Burmese junta takes a hostile approach to the US. North Korea is also seen as an enemy of the US. So now [Burma and North Korea] are close again, as allies. What had happened in 1983 is no longer an issue between them. Since they both have a grudge against the US, the Burmese military has formed a new alliance with North Korea. I see the junta has also been trying to foster relations with Iran and Cuba, which are also antagonistic to the US.
Q: What differences do you observe in the relationship between the period of Gen Ne Win’s rule and now?
A: At that time, it was just a diplomatic relationship, based on the fact that North Korea was also a member of the Non-Aligned Movement. It was like the relationship that we had with other countries around the world. In the first year of formal diplomatic ties, Burma’s foreign minister [went to North Korea], and then U Ne Win and his daughter Sandar Win made a state visit. That’s it. We severed diplomatic communication after the bombing.
Now the diplomatic relationship has resumed without any apology from them. Of course, we should forgive them, if they apologize. But North Korea has never issued a formal apology to Burma. But it is should be considered absolutely necessary if the two countries want to resume normal diplomatic relations. However, I know that people from here were the first to approach the other side.
Now communications seem better. As far as I have observed, it is basically for military purposes and especially for weapons.
North Korea is smarter than Burma in terms of weapons technology. People from here want those weapons, and they want [North Korea’s] nuclear technology. I assume they resumed relations for that purpose.
A nuclear reactor is reportedly being built here, and if they want to make a nuclear bomb from it, they may need to receive the technology from North Korea.
Q: In the world of international diplomacy, how shocking is an attack like the bombing carried out by the North Koreans in 1983?
A: It is the most serious crime.
It was insulting to Burma. The bomb went off in a building just 30-40 feet from our Martyrs’ Mausoleum, where the fathers of our nation are buried. Some Burmese ministers were also killed in the blast, along with the South Koreans.
Q: So what do you think of the resumption of diplomatic ties with a country that would commit such a crime?
A: It seems like they can just get away with anything.
Q: How will dealing with a country like North Korea, which is extremely isolated in the world, affect Burma?
A: [The Burmese junta] doesn’t think that deeply. They are unfriendly with the US, so they deal with other countries that are antagonistic to the US. The relationship itself seems to show that they don’t care about US policy.
Q: Is the relationship for their benefit?
A: Burma wants nuclear technology. To put it plainly: Burma wants to get the technology to develop a nuclear bomb. They have been sending many students to Russia for years. They study there for three to five years. Now they seem to be getting quite far.
However, Russia is a major world power, so they won’t give [the Burmese] the technical know-how [to build a bomb] because they have to maintain some ethical standards. North Korean, on the other, would be willing to provide this technology if they were approached.
To promote the relationship between the two countries, Gen Shwe Man visited there, and I have heard that the deputy foreign minister is handling the relationship. North Korea is now allowed to open an embassy in Burma.
However, I have to say it is childish of the Burmese generals to dream about acquiring nuclear technology, since they can’t even provide regular electricity in Burma.
Q: Why is China alarmed about the relationship between North Korea and Burma?
A: China understands the Burmese regime’s attitude well. Even if the generals are in a good mood now, they can easily change and become enemies in a short time. Their decisions are based on emotions. I think the same is true of the North Korean leadership.
Now China is trying to reign in North Korea. China has protected North Korea in the past, but now it is reluctant to do so again. I noticed that China didn’t object much to the UN Security Council’s recent resolution on North Korea.
Now China is advising the Burmese leaders to meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, although they are not referring to her by name. They have started talking about the need for national reconciliation in Burma.
If Burma moves closer to North Korea, China’s attitude to Burma could become more like its recent approach to North Korea. China has protected these countries to some extent in the past. But China could change its stand on Burma in the UN Security Council. Even if they don’t positively support a resolution condemning the regime, they could abstain from using their veto to block it. Burma may think that it can pursue whatever course it likes without worrying about Chinese support, but the idea that China will support the Burmese regime forever is wrong.
Q: What do you think about relations between China and Russia? Russia recently reiterated its opposition to political and economic pressure on Burma. Is it true that Russia still supports Burma?
A: Russia wants Burma to be its protégé and China thinks the same. They compete with each other for influence on Burma. Now China seems reluctant to support Burma, so Russia is jumping in to support the junta.
Moreover, there are many Burmese students studying in Russia and Russia considers them to be “their” men. I assume Russia wants Burma to be its man.
Q: Burma could use money it gets from selling natural gas to South Korea to buy arms from North Korea. How could tension on the Korean peninsula affect Burma-North Korea relations?
A: South Korea started buying Burmese gas before Burma normalized relations with North Korea. It is only in the past year or two that that there have been reports that Burma was buying arms from North Korea. Now the South Korean president has started criticizing Burma, and if some parliamentarians in South Korea start complaining about [Burma’s relationship with North Korea], it may change [Burmese-South Korean relations]. It depends on the South’s position. Burma may want to deal with both sides.
Q: North Korea is famous for its tunnel construction. Do you think this is something that the Burmese generals are particularly interested in?
A: When I was ambassador to North Korea, [Kim Il-sung] the father of the current president was still alive. He was very powerful. He used to live in tunnels and we sometimes visited him there. We went there by helicopter and then by car. His home in Pyongyang was just for show. They were always expecting war and were constantly preparing themselves for that. But we could visit him if he was in good health.
Now it is said that the Burmese junta is constructing tunnels in Kyaukse, in Minbu Township in Magway Division, in Chin State and in the Arakan Yoma mountain range with North Korea assistance. This news is spreading, so there may be something to it.