Burma: Are They or Aren’t They?



With Secretary Clinton headed to Burma and the press drinking the Kool Aid on the reforms there, it is important to underscore how little we actually know about the Burma-North Korea connection. In June, we discussed the infamous interdiction case in some detail. There does not seem much doubt that North Korea has shipped conventional weapons to Burma, which would be a violation of UNSC 1874.

But the big issue is possible nuclear cooperation. The Washington Post broke the story that Richard Lugar, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is set to disclose information he received five years ago on the Burma-North Korea nuclear connection; Lugar's full statement can be found here.

This is a prelude to arguing that any engagement with the country be made contingent on full disclosure of both its own nuclear program and any cooperation it may have received on it.

Secretary Clinton has clearly sought to get out in front of the issue; the relevant sections of the press briefing on the trip are reproduced below. The North Korea connection is touted as a—if not the--top priority in her meeting with the junta’s foreign minister. But as the transcript below shows, the State Department is wary on the nuclear front and is focusing its attention on the missile connection. Hans Blix,  speaking to VOA, is also a bit more cautious on how far any nuclear cooperation might have gotten.


From the Background Briefing on Secretary Clinton's Travel to Burma

Special Briefing

Senior State Department Official

En Route Busan, South Korea

November 29, 2011

[The first day in Burma] she will have her first formal meeting with her counterpart, the foreign minister. And at that session, we will go over a series of our domestic concerns. We will primarily focus on the relationship between North Korea and Burma. We have been very clear what our expectations are. And the Burmese have talked to us seriously about potential steps associated with the IAEA and other actions they are contemplating with respect to North Korea.


QUESTION: Can you go a bit more into depth on North Korea? Now, I know they were apparently getting some materials from North Korea for some type of a nuclear program. Can you give us as much as you know, and what do you want them to do at this point?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would say that the areas that we are primarily concerned with in terms of the relationship between North Korea and Burma are in the realm of missiles and other military equipment that are prohibited by UN Security Council Resolutions 1874 and others. We understand that there are perhaps other activities, nascent activities, but we are primarily focused on the former issues that I laid out. And our discussions will be around seeking much stronger assurances and international codified assurances of a determination on the part of the government to discontinue activities that we believe are antithetical to the maintenance of peace and stability.

QUESTION: When you talk about nascent activity, that's the nuclear program that the Secretary talked about two years ago when she was in Southeast Asia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would say that we have looked at this very, very closely. Obviously, it's an issue of concern. To date, our primary area of focus, again, is the missiles. I think we have looked at this fairly carefully, and we do not see signs of a substantial effort at this time… [We] would like them to sign the Additional Protocol, IAEA Additional Protocol, which is something that we've worked on with other countries in Southeast Asia. That would be our hope.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the IAEA. When you mentioned IAEA and that they'd be willing to take some steps, you were talking about this Additional Protocol?


QUESTION: Has Senator Lugar oversold this idea of nuclear contact between --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I think he has made very clear that this is a very serious issue to be focused on. We have been very clear what our expectations are to the governments.I think that, as I said, we believe that there have been surreptitious contacts, military missile-related, perhaps in other areas, in the past. We have made clear that a continuation of these kinds of efforts will make it very difficult for the United States to take the steps to improve the relationship that Naypyidaw seeks.

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