Many minor Wikileaks scoops have attracted media notice—like the fact that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi apparently always travels with a buxom Ukrainian “nurse”—but one frightening disclosure in particular has not received nearly enough attention. In several cables written from the
In one cable, from back in 2004, American officials reported that sources told them North Korean workers potentially were helping the junta build a ballistic missile program at one secret military site inside
The fact that two of the world’s most repressive and opaque regimes could be collaborating on nuclear and missile technology is disturbing enough. But nearly as disturbing is that reports of this collaboration have been surfacing for years, mostly among Burmese exiles—yet, until recently, diplomats mostly shrugged these stories off. Indeed, foreign governments know so little about (or are so disinterested in)
The first reports that the junta might be launching nuclear and missile programs started filtering out of
Just last month, a United Nations investigation found further evidence that North Korea was providing nuclear equipment banned for export to Burma. Proof that something problematic might be going on, in other words, is right under our noses. But, while some senior
Why won’t foreign governments consider the possibility? Denying that Burma could be trying to construct a nuclear or missile program fits into a larger pattern of mistaken thinking about the junta—a pattern that involves seeing the regime as crazy, unpredictable, or even stupid. This attitude is evident in much of the media coverage of the country, which focuses on the junta’s superstitions—it has used astrologers to help it pick propitious dates—or other bizarre tendencies. In conversations with officials from another, wealthier Asian nation last year, I was repeatedly told how hard it was to deal with the junta because its leaders have little education. Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has been blunter, telling American diplomats, in one conversation captured in a Wikileaks-released cable, that the junta is “dense.”
To be sure, building a nuclear program is a serious undertaking—witness the trouble Iran is having—and the impoverished and relatively isolated Burmese junta would face an uphill climb. What’s more, to produce a nuclear program,
But, as I have written previously for TNR, the junta often has the last laugh with the international community. Twice before, in 1995 and 2002, the regime released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and then used her freedom to gain what it wanted from the international community: increased investment as well as membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In both cases, outsiders hailed a new era of reform—but, both times, when the junta had gotten what it wanted, it put Suu Kyi back into jail. (She was released again a few weeks ago and, for the time being, remains free.) The regime then continued keeping its people under mercilessly tight control, violating their most basic rights.
There could be another explanation for
In the end, neither the hope of engagement nor a faith in the regime’s essential incompetence seem like good reasons to play down the nuclear issue. To be fair, the Obama administration doesn’t lack for major headaches around the world. But it might be time to add this one to the list.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for