BANGKOK — The recent aborted voyage of a North Korean ship, photographs of massive tunnels and a secret meeting have raised concern that one of the world's poorest nations may be aspiring to join the nuclear club – with help from its friends in Pyongyang.
No one expects military-run Myanmar, also known as Burma, to obtain an atomic bomb anytime soon, but experts are closely watching the Southeast Asian nation.
"There's suspicion that something is going on, and increasingly that cooperation with North Korea may have a nuclear undercurrent. We are very much looking into it," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
The issue is expected to be discussed, at least on the sidelines, at this week's ASEAN Regional Forum, a major security conference hosted by Thailand. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with representatives from North Korea and Myanmar, will attend.
In the Thai capital Bangok on Tuesday, Clinton did not refer explicitly to a nuclear connection but highlighted the military relationship between Myanmar and North Korea.
"We know there are also growing concerns about military cooperation between North Korea and Burma which we take very seriously," Clinton said.
Later, a senior administration official said Washington was concerned about the possibility that North Korea could be cooperating with Myanmar on a nuclear weapons program, but he added U.S. intelligence information on this was incomplete. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter.
Another administration official, speaking under the same ground rules, said one reason for concern on the nuclear front is the evidence that North Korea helped Syria clandestinely build a nuclear reactor, which was destroyed in an airstrike in 2007 by the Israeli air force.
International unease escalated recently when a North Korean freighter, the Kang Nam I, headed toward Myanmar with undisclosed cargo. Shadowed by the U.S. Navy, it reversed course and returned home earlier this month.
It is still not clear what was aboard. U.S. and South Korean officials suspected artillery and other non-nuclear arms, but one South Korean intelligence expert, citing satellite imagery, says the ship's mission appeared to be related to a Myanmar nuclear program and also carried Scud-type missiles.
The expert, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said North Korea is helping Myanmar set up uranium and nuclear-related facilities, echoing similar reports that have long circulated in Myanmar's exile community and media.
Meanwhile, Japanese police arrested a North Korean and two Japanese nationals last month for allegedly trying to export a magnetic measuring device to Myanmar that could be used to develop missiles.
And a recent report from Washington-based Radio Free Asia and Myanmar exile media said senior Myanmar military officers made a secret visit late last year to North Korea, where an agreement was concluded for greatly expanding cooperation to modernize Myanmar's military, including the construction of underground installations. The military pact report has yet to be confirmed.
In June, photographs, video and reports showed as many as 800 tunnels, some of them vast, dug in Myanmar with North Korean assistance under an operation code-named "Tortoise Shells." The photos were reportedly taken between 2003 and 2006.
Thailand-based author Bertil Lintner is convinced of the authenticity of the photos, which he was the first to obtain. However, the purpose of the tunnel networks, many near the remote capital of Naypyitaw, remains unknown.
"There is no doubt that the Burmese generals would like to have a bomb so that they could challenge the Americans and the rest of the world," says Lintner, who has written books on both Myanmar and North Korea. "But they must be decades away from acquiring anything that would even remotely resemble an atomic bomb."
North Korea's nuclear program has given it leverage and allowed the impoverished country to receive international aid in return for steps toward dismantling its nuclear capabilities. Myanmar, also a poor nation, may also be seeking such a negotiating tool.
David Mathieson of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, who monitors developments in Myanmar, says while there's no firm evidence the generals are pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, "a swirl of circumstantial trends indicates something in the nuclear field is going on that definitely warrants closer scrutiny by the international community."
Albright says some of the suspicion stems from North Korea's nuclear cooperation with Syria, which now possesses a reactor. Syria had first approached the Russians, just as Myanmar did earlier, but both countries were rejected, so the Syrians turned to Pyongyang – a step Myanmar may also be taking.
Since the early 2000s, dissidents and defectors from Myanmar have talked of a "nuclear battalion," an atomic "Ayelar Project" working out of a disguised flour mill and two Pakistani scientists who fled to Myanmar following the Sept. 11 attacks providing assistance. They gave no detailed evidence.
Now a spokesman for the self-styled Myanmar government-in-exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, says according to people working with the dissident movement inside the Myanmar army, there are two heavily guarded buildings under construction "to hold nuclear reactors" in central Myanmar.
Villagers in the area have been displaced, said spokesman Zinn Lin.
Andrew Selth of Australia's Griffith University, who has monitored Myanmar's possible nuclear moves for a decade, says none of these reports has been substantiated and calls the issue an "information black hole."
He also says Western governments are cautious in their assessments, remembering the intelligence blunders regarding suspected weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
A U.S. State Department official, speaking on customary rules of anonymity, said he would not comment on intelligence-related matters such as nuclear proliferation.
In 2007, Russia signed an agreement to establish a nuclear studies center in Myanmar, build a 10-megawatt nuclear research reactor for peaceful purposes, and train several hundred technicians in its operation.
However, Russia's atomic agency Rosatom told The Associated Press recently that "there has been no movement whatsoever on this agreement with Burma ever since."
Even earlier, before the military seized power, Myanmar sought to develop nuclear energy, sending physicists to the United States and Britain for studies in the 1950s. The military government established a Department of Atomic Energy in 2001 under U Thaung, a known proponent of nuclear technology who heads the Ministry of Science and Technology.
Myanmar is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and under a safeguard agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, it is obligated to let the U.N. watchdog know at least six months in advance of operating a nuclear facility, agency spokesman Ayhan Evrensel said.
Evrensel said the Vienna-based IAEA has asked Myanmar to sign a so-called "additional protocol" that would allow agency experts to carry out unannounced inspections and lead to a broader flow of information about Myanmar's nuclear activities.
The regime has remained silent on whatever its plans may be. A Myanmar government spokesman did not respond to an e-mail asking about Russian and North Korean involvement in nuclear development.
In a rare comment from inside Myanmar, Chan Tun, former ambassador to North Korea turned democracy activist, told the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine, "To put it plainly: Burma wants to get the technology to develop a nuclear bomb.
"However, I have to say that it is childish of the Burmese generals to dream about acquiring nuclear technology since they can't even provide regular electricity in Burma," the Myanmar exile publication quoted him last month as saying.
Some experts think the generals may be bluffing.
"I would think that it's quite possible Yangon would like to scare other countries or may feel that talking about developing nuclear technologies will give them more bargaining clout," said Cristina-Astrid Hansell at the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "This is not unreasonable, given the payoffs North Korea has gotten for its nuclear program."
Associated Press writers Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul, Pauline Jelinek and Matt Lee in Washington, Caroline Stauffer in Bangkok, George Jahn and William Kole in Vienna and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.