smoke or fire? | Connect Asia

smoke or fire?

smoke or fire?

Updated 18 January 2012, 19:40 AEDT

Over the past few months there's been increased speculation about whether Burma is developing a nuclear weapon, but how much truth is there to the claims? In July, at an ASEAN meeting in Thailand, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters of concerns about the transfer of "nuclear technology" from North Korea to Burma.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute discusses the issue in a new report, 'Burma and North Korea: Smoke or Fire?'

Presenter: Liam Cochrane

Dr Carl Ungerer, director of the National Security Project at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

UNGERER: Well it's been a chequered one in the past, [it] goes back to the fact that they both achieved independence in 1948 and didn't have much of a relationship. But it was in the early 1980s when North Korean agents were sent down to kill ministers of the South Korean government in Rangoon, they achieved the death of a few of them and several Burmese at the time. Relations soured horrendously after that as you can imagine but then picked up again after 1988 and the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in Burma. And since then, since about 2000 there seems to be a growing pattern of military cooperation and certainly it's the case that Burma has been procuring military equipment and hardware from North Korea for some time now.

COCHRANE: And I understand there's also been, it's fairly widely assumed, that they've been helping with these tunnels or underground facilities. Can you tell me about those, what do they look like and what do you think they are?

UNGERER: Well the reports are unclear but clearly Burma has been engaged in building a number of tunnels, we've seen that in satellite photos and other imagery that's available on the web. Now we can speculate about what the purpose of those is, but clearly governments post the Iraq war have decided in rogue regimes that digging underground is the best defence against any sort of potential air attack. Now they could be for a range of reasons and this is where the speculation begins, anything from the storage of military hardware right through to the construction of a facility that might house a uranium enrichment facility. So what the actual purpose of some of these tunnels is unclear, but nonetheless both North Korea and Burma have decided that digging underground is one of the best defences.

COCHRANE: Now Hillary Clinton spoke of the concern, as I mentioned, about the transfer of nuclear technology. Were her comments misinterpreted?

UNGERER: No I don't think so because I think she was very careful in what she said, she didn't actually talk about a potential nuclear weapons cooperation program between the two countries. She said that the US and other countries took seriously the growing signs of military cooperation between Pyongyang and Napyidaw. She said that they included the transfer of nuclear technology and other dangerous weapons, but that is not in and of itself an argument to say that there's been a transfer of a weapons program as yet.

COCHRANE: Hillary Clinton did also say though at that same press conference that in her words, "It would be destabilising for the region, it would pose a direct threat to Burma's neighbours". I mean that doesn't sound like nuclear energy production, does it?

UNGERER: No but it's also the fact that that took place in the immediate aftermath of the ship that was travelling, the Kang Nam 1, potentially with short-range ballistic missiles on it. Now that would be an extremely destabilising development if Burma were to acquire short-range ballistic missiles.

COCHRANE: Another piece of evidence that has come forward or claims that have come forward were the two defectors that spoke to Professor Desmond Ball and another journalist on the border. What are your views on the value of the defectors' testimony?

UNGERER: Well Andrew Selth, the author of this report, has looked at these claims very carefully and in fact they go back to 2002 when these defectors first raised their concerns about what was going on inside Burma. They've been known for some time even though it was only August this year that the Fairfax papers had published this material. And Andrew's report I think sets out quite clearly that we have to be very cautious and careful about some of the claims made by these two individuals, and whether or not either of them would have had a really clear view of what was going on if Burma was actually engaged in a nuclear weapons program. One of them was an older accountant, whether or not an accountant would have much visibility of a nuclear weapons program is unclear, and some of the claims really have been untested and appear somewhat dubious.

COCHRANE: Dr Carl Ungerer just in the 20 seconds we've got remaining I want to ask you about the impact of Iraq and not finding weapons of mass destruction as expected there. Has that led to the world being reluctant to draw conclusions on Burma?

UNGERER: I don't think it's necessarily affecting sort of the strategic analysis judgements on Burma. I think people are more careful, they're more cautious and there's going to have to be much harder evidence than is currently available on Burma before anyone jumps out and declares a nuclear weapons program.

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