WASHINGTON—Burma's military regime has likely completed construction of an underground tunnel system with aid from North Korea in exchange for food and other materials, according to a Swedish journalist based in Bangkok.
Bertil Lintner said North Korean engineers arrived in Burma's remote new capital, Naypyidaw, three years ago to help build tunnels. He points to photographs that purportedly show North Korean advisers at the tunneling sites in Burma between 2003 and 2006.
"We know for certain that in June 2006 a group of North Korean tunneling experts arrived in Naypyidaw to help with some of the tunneling and underground projects that were going on there at that time," Lintner said.
By the late 1990s the first North Korean armaments began to arrive in Burma."
Kim Kwang Jin, a North Korean defector and visiting fellow at Washington's Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, agreed with Lintner's assessment.
"It's true that there are North Korean engineers of military supplies and administrators dispatched in Burma," Kim said, although he was unclear what information advisers were providing to Burmese officials.
"To my knowledge, they were dispatched to Burma in 2002 or 2003. Burmese authorities have managed the [dispatched] North Korean work force in top secret," he said.
Lintner, author of Blood Brothers: The Criminal Underworld of Asia and Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan, claims the Burmese junta, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), began tunnel construction as early as 2005, when the country's capital was moved to Naypyidaw from Rangoon.
Additional tunnels have been built near Taunggyi, the capital of Burma's northeastern Shan state and home to several of the country's ongoing insurgencies, Lintner said.
"Some of those projects were fairly innocent. For instance, to facilitate hydroelectric power generation and so on. But others were more clandestine. They were meant to put some of the administration underground," he said.
Lintner said the tunnel systems likely include underground meeting rooms and other facilities meant to protect Burma's top leadership from outside threats, including airborne attacks or uprisings by angry crowds, such as the large-scale pro-democracy movement of 1988.
But Lintner said the junta required more specialized help from the North Koreans, who he called "experts at tunneling" and "much more advanced" than technicians from other countries.
"North Korea itself has built a number of underground installations for its own defense industry—for virtually everything in North Korea is also moved underground," Lintner said.
"If you fly over North Korea, as I have done, you can suddenly see smoke coming out of a mountain in the middle of nowhere and you can see they are building inside.
So it's no surprise to me that they turned to [them] for this kind of expertise," he said.
Whether the tunnels are linked to Burma's reported efforts to develop nuclear technology is unknown, he said.
Relations between Burma and North Korea have improved continually since North Korean agents were discovered to be behind a bomb explosion in Rangoon that killed 18 visiting South Korean officials in 1983.
Lintner said North Korea held secret talks with Burma in Bangkok during the early 1990s in a bid to extradite the alleged Rangoon bombers for trial in North Korea.
"But while these talks were going on, I think the North Koreans and the Burmese realized that they had a lot in common. For instance, the way they look at the outside world—threats from the outside world —they have to survive against all odds economically as well as politically," Lintner said.
"So gradually, relations improved, and by the late 1990s the first North Korean armaments began to arrive in Burma," he said.
Lintner said military hardware began to flow to Burma, which the junta needed to suppress an increasingly rebellious urban population as well as ethnic rebels in the country's frontier areas.
North Korea was willing to accept food, rubber, and other essentials in exchange from Burma's generals, who had little cash to spend.
"Since then, relations have been steadily improving," Lintner said. Those improved ties culminated in the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between North Korea and Burma in 2007.
In addition to arms deals, there have been "a lot of other exchanges going on which we know very little about," Lintner said.
He pointed to a number of "mysterious" port calls in Burma by North Korean ships as well as frequent reports on the Web site of the official Korean Central News Agency of so-called "friendship delegations" arriving in Burma.
"The 'friendship delegations' do not arrive in Rangoon without reason. It is more than friendship. It is some kind of business. But the exact nature of that business remains very much a mystery," Lintner said.
While he said North Korea is likely trading technology with Burma, Lintner was reluctant to speculate exactly what kind.
But he noted that both countries are short of foreign exchange reserves and therefore may be more willing to conduct those exchanges through barter.
"Both countries are interested in all sorts of barter deals which, for instance, China and Russia would not accept. For instance, if North Korea were to transfer scientific technology to Burma, Burma would repay with minerals or with rice or something that North Korea needs," Lintner said.
He suggested that Burma's generals may also remunerate North Korea with gold, which is found along the country's northern riverbanks.
"North Korea would be willing to supply Burma with goods that not even Russia or the Chinese would. And one of them would be tunneling technology and the other one could be, possibly, nuclear know-how," he said.
Original reporting by Kyaw Min Htun for RFA's Burmese service. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Written in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.