North Korea tried to ship materials suitable for uranium enrichment or missile development to Myanmar via China this year, in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution, The Asahi Shimbun has learned.
The shipment included about 50 metal pipes and 15 high-specification aluminum alloy bars, at least some of them offering the high strength needed in centrifuges for a nuclear weapons program.
Japan seized the items aboard a cargo vessel docked at Tokyo Port on Aug. 22, a raid which took place at the request of the United States, sources told The Asahi Shimbun.
Authorities concluded that the shipment originated in North Korea because the bars were found to be inscribed "DPRK," although investigators were unable to confirm the origin from cargo documents or from the ship's crew, the sources said.
Japan, the United States and South Korea believe Myanmar has abandoned its one-time nuclear weapons ambitions. This makes officials suspect that the aluminum alloy may have been intended for use in building missiles instead.
A South Korean government source said Myanmar may have been trying to develop short-range missiles in the event of border disputes with its neighbors.
The United States is among nations now easing sanctions against Myanmar and supporting its move toward democracy. On Nov. 19, Barack Obama, the first serving U.S. president to visit Myanmar, met with President Thein Sein in Yangon and requested that he sever military ties with North Korea.
The revelation of apparent continued links could hamper international reconciliation. And Pyongyang has complained of U.S. pressure on Myanmar to end relations.
It will also likely cause international criticism of Myanmar and China, which have both denied violating the U.N. ban on North Korean exports of weapons and related materials.
The cargo was to have been delivered to Soe Ming Htike, a Yangon-based construction company, which the U.S. government believes is a front for Myanmar's military procurement.
In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, a company based in Dalian, China, confirmed that it had tried to send aluminum alloy to Myanmar.
"We became the cargo's owner at the request of a company," an official said. "We have learned that the cargo was seized, but we do not know why."
Japanese government officials believe North Korea acquired the aluminum alloy from China. They said North Korea is unlikely to possess the technology needed to produce such material.
At a meeting held to discuss the matter, Japanese officials from several government agencies agreed that the Chinese military—which ultimately controls its defense industry—must have approved North Korea's exporting the materials to Myanmar.
The sources said the cargo was loaded onto the 17,138-ton Wan Hai 215, a Singapore-registered cargo vessel operated by a Taiwanese shipping company, in Dalian on July 27.
On Aug. 9, the cargo was offloaded and placed aboard the 27,800-ton Wan Hai 313 in Shekou, China.
On Aug. 14, the cargo was scheduled to change ships once again in Malaysia and to reach Yangon Port the following day.
The United States learned about the cargo's possible contents and asked the Taiwanese shipping company not to carry out the transshipment in Malaysia.
The Wan Hai 313 entered Tokyo Port on Aug. 22. Officers from Tokyo Customs, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and other agencies examined the cargo and found the items in question.
For the first time, Japan applied a special measures law that allows the government to inspect cargo on ships suspected of carrying weapons and related materials to and from North Korea.
Meanwhile, the discovery could force Japan, the United States and South Korea to review their nuclear nonproliferation policy.
A Japanese government source said since North Korea has no apparent difficulty procuring the necessary aluminum alloy it now likely "has acquired a large number of centrifuges."
In November 2010, North Korea showed centrifuges to U.S. experts at a nuclear facility at Yongbyon. Officials claimed there were 2,000 centrifuges, enough to produce 40 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in one year, if certain conditions are met. That amount is sufficient for one or two nuclear bombs.
The U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies suspect that North Korea is operating additional underground uranium enrichment facilities elsewhere.
"North Korea would never disclose all its cards," one South Korean government source said. "There must be other facilities."
It is difficult to monitor the activities of centrifuges with an intelligence satellite because the site needed is small compared with the large reactor needed to produce plutonium for bombs.
North Korea and Myanmar have had military ties for years.
Sources quoted Shwe Mann, speaker of Myanmar's lower house, as recently telling Japanese government officials that North Korea has yet to deliver some weapons ordered by Myanmar in the past. But, the speaker insisted, Myanmar would pursue no new weapons purchases from North Korea.
Shwe Mann's remark effectively contradicts Myanmar's official stance that it has not had any military transactions since spring 2011.
The United States and South Korea learned that Myanmar signed contracts to purchase military supplies from North Korea when Shwe Mann visited the country in November 2008 as joint chief of staff. Among facilities Shwe Mann inspected was a North Korean missile factory.
In January, a ship arrived at Yangon Port via China, carrying cargo that had been loaded in Nampho, North Korea, ordered by an organization affiliated with the Myanmar military.
"The cargo was a primary machine tool for weapons manufacture," said a diplomatic source in Yangon. "Military ties between Myanmar and North Korea have not been cut off."
North Korean military engineers have been spotted in Myanmar, as well as officials from a company that procures personal funds for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un.
The U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies have stationed personnel at airports and ports in Myanmar to monitor traffic, but North Koreans are apparently traveling by land through China, sources said.
Investigations by Japan and the United States have found that Myanmar has—at some point—imported from North Korea weapons that include mortars.
Myanmar has also informally told the United States it built underground tunnels near Naypyidaw and elsewhere with technical assistance from the North Korean military.
Japan, the United States and South Korea have refrained from disclosing details about military ties between North Korea and Myanmar.
"If we went public with that, we would thrust Myanmar closer to China and North Korea," said one Japanese government source.
Meanwhile, a Chinese government source criticized the approach of countries such as the United States toward Myanmar.
"It does not contain only niceties, such as an evaluation of the pro-democracy movement," the source said. "This is a geopolitical confrontation between China and the United States."
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