By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 10, 2010; 8:19 PM
TOKYO - A batch of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables released this week lend details to long-suspected nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Burma, suggesting that hundreds of North Koreans were at one point working at a covert military site deep in the Burmese jungle.
The cables from the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, released Thursday by anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks, are hardly definitive, citing accounts from dockworkers, foreign businessmen and other observers. But they feed growing fears of a partnership between two of the world's most opaque countries, with cash-strapped North Korea selling its nuclear technology - which now includes a capacity for uranium enrichment - despite United Nations sanctions designed to clamp down on exactly that.
Suspicions have swirled for several years about Burma's nuclear ambitions. As non-proliferation analysts see it, those ambitions would probably draw on help from Pyongyang. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has warned of possible nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Burma, also known as Myanmar.
One August 2004 memo cited information from a Burmese officer who claimed that 300 North Koreans were assembling surface-to-air missiles at a secret construction site, in a town called Mimbu. The workers, too, were "constructing a concrete-reinforced underground facility that is '500 feet from the top of the cave to the top of the hill above.' "
The source's information, the cable acknowledged, should not be taken as definitive proof of military or nuclear cooperation. The cable also noted that the informant probably overestimated the number of North Korean workers at the site. "This account," the cable stated, "is perhaps best considered alongside other information of various origins indicating the Burmese and North Koreans are up to something."
The Obama administration has eased its diplomatic isolation of Burma's ruling military junta, seeking a hand in dissuading the purchase of North Korean technology. Meantime, a recent U.N. report - compiled by a panel of experts monitoring the sanctions against Pyongyang - concludes that North Korea is exporting nuclear technology to Iran, Syria and Burma, often using an elaborate network of shell companies and intermediaries.
Burma, for its part, has shrugged aside reports of its nuclear intentions. The notion that Burma covets either a nuclear reactor or a uranium enrichment facility is based largely on information from defectors, intercepted materials and analysis of satellite photos.
A report released this January by the Institute for Science and International Security established a pattern of suspicious links between Burma and North Korea but stopped short of claimed definitive nuclear cooperation.
"The Burmese military regime might use North Korean trading entities to acquire overseas sensitive nuclear and nuclear dual use goods," the report stated. "Its military cooperation with North Korea has increased over the last several years, fueling concerns about nuclear cooperation. North Korea could also supplement Burma's own foreign procurement networks, and it could sell nuclear goods made in North Korea."
Fears about illicit North Korean exports heightened with last month's revelation of an advanced uranium enrichment facility, constructed at the Yongbyon nuclear site. Before nuclear weapons specialist Siegfried Hecker visited the site Nov. 12, non-proliferation analysts and outside intelligence agencies - though long aware of North Korea's uranium program - had not imagined its capability to create a large-scale facility with thousands of centrifuges.
But that's what Hecker saw. A narrow building packed with centrifuges - about 2,000, Hecker said, arranged in rows, along with a control room with flat-screen panels. It appeared to him to be a site capable of creating enough uranium for either one or two nuclear weapons every year.
"At best I was expecting to see several dozen centrifuges hooked up in a primitive cascade," Hecker said in a recent interview. "But we saw 2,000! And just the modernity of the whole facility. Everything was new, clean, modern."
The North Koreans who provided Hecker the tour of the facility said the uranium would be used for energy purposes, and kept below weapons-grade. Either way, according to security experts, North Korea's likely capacity for uranium enrichment doesn't alter its ability for destruction; after all, North Korea had invested decades in a plutonium program, harvesting enough weapons-grade material for fewer than a dozen nuclear weapons.
The greatest change in the security calculus, then, stems not from how North Korea might use uranium, but rather where it might sell it.
"North Korea is in the business of selling stuff," said David Asher, a former Bush administration official who directed strategy against Pyongyang's illicit activities. "They have very little. They sell weapons. They sell illicit products. It's just the way they are. If only they applied themselves more productively, they'd probably be a powerhouse economy. But they just haven't."
Strong evidence already suggests that North Korea built Syria a nuclear reactor, which was demolished by an Israeli air strike in September 2007.