Ready for this? Nukes in Burma report

By James Fallows
BurmaDPRK.jpg

A friend I've known and trusted for years in the national security world sent me this report from the Bangkok Post yesterday. Obviously that means it's not "secret" material, and the report itself the result of reasoning and guess work rather than anything more definite. But the authors include Desmond Ball of the Australian National University, who is a well-established authority in nuclear weapons and strategic studies. (Nothing against the other author; I just don't know of him.) They begin their findings this way:

"Our own starting position was one of deep skepticism, but the testimonies from two defectors forced us to consider the uncomfortable possibilities of a Burma with nuclear capability." (Photo Bangkok Post)

The reason this would matter is that Burma has arguably the worst government in the world -- and if not the very worst, then right up there with North Korea in having its own concept of "rationality." (This was the government that would not allow outsiders to help the victims of the devastating typhoon/cyclone last year.) And the gist of this report is that North Korea has been working with the Burmese regime on nukes. To this point, the Burmese regime's destructiveness has been visited exclusively on its own country's people rather than against its neighbors. Of course, nuclear weapons can change things.

We have seen in recent world history the danger of leaping to conclusions about which dangerous regimes have what new weaponry. But to me this was news worth putting on the worry-scope.

Extra items from the Bangkok Post here and here. The Interpreter, from the Lowy Institute in Sydney, today has a thorough rundown of the rumors and counter-arguments here. After the jump, my friend's informed gloss on the affair.
___

From my friend, who has worked in various public and private roles in defense-related efforts. After he sent the report I wrote back saying, is there any reason to think this is true? His reply is below. He says Myanmar; I say Burma, as explained here:


"Unfortunately, I do believe that the story should not be dismissed.  What is most concerning to me is the fact that it follows by just 10 days or so, Secretary Clinton's 21 July statements in which she expressed concern over the possibility that North Korea is sharing nuclear weapons-related technology with Myanmar.  NYT story here:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/22/world/asia/22diplo.html

"At the time of that story, I thought how bizarre, how out of nowhere the Clinton accusation seemed to come.  Now, given the Ball story, I can't help but think that the Obama Administration has some intelligence indicating that the North is engaging in such activity and that they were aware that it was about to leak via the Ball story or perhaps other avenues, and that they wanted to get a jump on it, so as not to be accused of having been caught unaware.  Further underscoring my tendency to believe that there is in fact a there there is that I cannot believe that Secretary Clinton would have made such an accusation -- now echoed in the Ball account -- unless the Administration had something substantial.  They are painfully aware -- certainly the intel community -- is painfully aware of the fact that the U.S. cannot afford to be revealed as peddling false accusations.

"As far as the content of the Ball story goes, the first and main question that I would bring to any such story in which a state is accused of laying the groundwork for a nuclear weapons materials program would be: what have they done to escape notice (the notice of eyes in the sky; the notice of foreign travelers through the country) and, unfortunately, the contention that Myanmar now has a reactor constructed in 8 different locations and an underground secret facility buried deep within a mountain -- the  Naung Laing facility -- supplies a credible response to my question.  The second question would be how can a country so desperately poor, so bereft of well, just about everything. . . but then I stop and think:  North Korea, Pakistan...

"It's way too early for anyone to be talking in terms of "slam dunk" evidence; certainly Clinton's remarks didn't go that far and neither does Ball's.  But the bottom line is that Ball's story is technically credible in its own right and it supplies a follow-up piece to Clinton's earlier remarks that fits a little too neatly (too uncomfortably neatly) with those remarks."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/08/ready-for-this-nukes-in-burma-report/22627/