Asia’s Axis of Evil?

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Asia Chronicle on 7/24/09.

The two pariahs of Asia, North Korea and Burma, often get mentioned in the same breath. With no one else to depend on, these two countries would appear to be natural partners. Indeed, the Obama administration has been gathering circumstantial evidence that North Korea is providing Burma with nuclear technology so that they can both thumb their noses more aggressively at the international community. There are satellite images of Burma’s underground tunnels. The Japanese recently arrested a North Korean and two Japanese businessmen for attempting to sell Burma a magnetometer, a component of missile guidance systems. The Kang Nam, the North Korean ship that the Pentagon was recently tracking, was bound for Burma with a pile of who-knows-what on board.

Like the old trio of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, this new Asian Axis of Evil is an alliance that exists largely in the minds of the observer. North Korea and Burma are not natural allies. The two countries were not on speaking terms for almost 25 years after North Korea blew up a portion of South Korea’s cabinet in Rangoon in 1983. They only reestablished diplomatic relations in 2007. The two countries are not held together by any ideological ties, since they both long ago abandoned their communist pretenses. They border China and receive considerable aid from Beijing. But China is not particularly happy with either of its putative clients and would never consider playing the role of the middle partner in a new three-way axis.

On the other hand, business is business, and neither Burma nor North Korea is exactly the most favored nation these days in terms of trade. International condemnation has the perhaps unintended consequence of matchmaking otherwise odd bedfellows. The two countries have reportedly explored closer military ties that go beyond North Korea’s sales of rather primitive conventional arms. North Korea will provide military training, perhaps some SCUD missiles, and some help building the junta’s underground tunnels – for hiding its more sophisticated hardware.

North Korea is not prohibited from selling small arms, providing military training, or helping with the building of underground tunnels. SCUD missiles are another matter, but there is no evidence yet of any transactions.

The nuclear issue falls into a different category, however. If North Korea were to provide nuclear material or technology to Burma, it would be crossing what several U.S. administrations have identified as a red line.

The evidence of nuclear cooperation, however, remains rather thin. We don’t know what the Kang Nam was carrying – if, in fact, it was carrying anything at all. North Korea might well have sent a decoy to embarrass the United States or South Korea if either country were foolish enough to try to board the ship. Burma’s underground tunnels are no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. The magnetometer could be used for many purposes, including ballistic missiles (and not specifically a nuclear missile program).

Burma certainly wants nuclear reactors. In 2007, it struck a deal for Russia to build a nuclear research reactor and train technicians. But so far nothing has come of it.

But does Burma want a nuclear bomb? “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,” journalist Bertil Lintner recently said. “But they must be decades away from acquiring anything that would even remotely resemble an atomic bomb.”

Burma is not North Korea. It is a member of ASEAN. It faces a considerable domestic opposition as well as several ethnic-based conflicts. It doesn’t have the resources to acquire a nuclear program rapidly. And it can’t risk completely alienating China, which is dead-set against yet another nuclear power on its border.

So, nuclear cooperation between the two pariahs is unlikely. However, as long as the United States and other countries pursue the blunt instrument of sanctions and no other strategies, we will push North Korea and Burma closer together. There is no axis of evil in Asia. But, with our unsophisticated policies, we are doing our best to create one.

John Feffer is co-director of the Foreign Policy In Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies.