BANGKOK — Burma's military relations with North Korea are under scrutiny after Japan acknowledged intercepting a shipment of materials officials say could be used for a nuclear program. A U.S. special advisor visiting in March said Burma needs to convince the world they have severed military relations with Pyongyang if they want suspended sanctions fully lifted.
Japan on Monday confirmed reports that customs officials last year seized a shipment of aluminum alloy rods, suspected of coming from North Korea, that could be used to make nuclear centrifuges.
Japanese media reported the shipment was bound for Burma but was intercepted from a Singaporean-flagged ship in August after a tip-off from the United States.
The revelation raised concerns that, despite dramatic political reforms, Burma may be continuing to work on a secret nuclear weapons program and possibly violating U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.
More reforms needed
Western countries have suspended most diplomatic and economic sanctions on Burma. But last week U.S. special advisor on Burma, Patrick Murphy, said sanctions would not be fully lifted without more political and human rights reforms - as well as a clear break with North Korea.
"We very much hope to be in a position to declare or to accept a declaration that the military relationship between the two countries has been severed. And, we have fruitful dialogue on this issue with authorities here. And, I think there is a very good understanding about the international concerns vis a vis North Korea," said Murphy.
Military relations with N. Korea
Burma's military government has long been a buyer of North Korean weapons and military supplies.
Relations between the two were disrupted in 1983 when North Korean agents bombed the delegation of a visiting South Korean president in Rangoon, killing 17 people.
But the two pariah and military-run states resumed ties in secret just a few years later.
In 2010, as Burma was beginning its democratic transition, a defector alleged the military was running a secret nuclear weapons program. Analysts suspected North Korean support.
Robert Kelley is a former nuclear engineer with Los Alamos and the U.N. nuclear agency, the IAEA, who looked into the allegations. He says while there was evidence of a nuclear weapons program, he saw no signs of North Korean involvement.
"I can find no evidence whatsoever that North Korea was involved in the nuclear program. And, I don't think you'll find anyone out there who has that evidence," he said. "If you look particularly at the U.S. government statements, as we've seen this rapprochement with Burma, they carefully have turned the talk away from nuclear only to missiles and conventional."
Reports of the suspect aluminum shipment surfaced in November as U.S. President Barack Obama was about to make history as the first sitting U.S. chief executive to visit Burma.
Earlier in the year, President Thein Sein had promised Burma would stop buying military hardware from Pyongyang and would sign an additional protocol with the IAEA that could allow international inspections.
Burma’s parliament has not yet approved measures that would allow inspections. Authorities also continue to deny operating any nuclear program.
Nuclear expert Kelley says although Burma is likely decades away from producing any nuclear materials, it should still come clean on the program and allow inspections.
"Well, in public, all I've seen is the opposite," he said. "They've said, we will not accept inspections because there's nothing to show. So, they would be taking the attitude that we have no nuclear materials, no nuclear facilities, as you have defined them legally. And, since we have nothing like that there's no place to take you, nothing to show you."
VOA requested an interview with Burma's presidential spokesman to respond to the allegations but he was not available for comment.