U.S. increasingly wary as Burma deepens military relationship with North Korea

By John Pomfret
Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Obama administration, concerned that Burma is expanding its military relationship with North Korea, has launched an aggressive campaign to persuade 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 technology possibly related to nuclear weapons -- in part prompted the Obama administration in October to end the George W. 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.

Senior U.S. officials have since had four meetings with their Burmese counterparts, with a fifth 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."

Congress and human rights organizations are increasingly criticizing and questioning 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, recently called for the administration to increase the pressure on Burma, including tightening sanctions 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, escaping to China, Bangladesh and Thailand, in the months after the U.S. opening. A report issued this week by the Karen Women's Organization alleged that Burmese troops have gang-raped, killed and even crucified Karen women in an attempt to root out a 60-year-old insurgency by guerrillas from 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; he was allegedly beaten, denied food and water, and placed in isolation in a tiny cell with no toilet. Burma recently snubbed the United Nations' special envoy on human rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, denying him a meeting with Suu Kyi and access to Burma's senior leadership.

"The bad behavior has increased," said Ernest 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 remains the best way forward, especially given the concerns about its 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 that country and throughout Southeast Asia. Webb's trip to Burma in 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 about Burma is a desire to avoid a repeat of events that unfolded in Syria in 2007. North Korea is thought to have helped Syria secretly build a nuclear reactor there capable of producing plutonium. The facility was reportedly only weeks or months away from being functional when Israeli warplanes bombed it in September of that year.

"The lesson here is the Syrian one," said David Albright, president of the nongovernmental 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 thought 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 U.S. 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 signed a deal with Russia for the supply of a 10-megawatt thermal research reactor, although construction of the facility had not started as of September.

Second, although many claims from dissident groups about covert nuclear sites in Burma are still unverified, the report said that "there remain legitimate reasons to suspect the existence of undeclared nuclear activities in Burma, particularly in the context of North Korean cooperation."

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