Joshua PollackBurma, North Korea, and the WSJ

Some of the most informative and provocative reporting on nuclear proliferation and policy to be found these days emerges from the keyboard of the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon. More’s the pity, then, when he seems to be cutting corners. Tuesday’s article on Jon Byong-ho and Yun Ho-jin — the Dynamic Duo of North Korean missile and nuclear exports — looks like one of those times.

It’s a detailed and thorough piece of work, and one hesitates to find too much fault. But there are at least two problems that call out for rectification, one small and one potentially very large.

Strike One

Let’s start with the small stuff — failing to give credit to another publication. Solomon writes:

North Korea’s high-level defector, Hwang Jang-yop, has identified Mr. Chun [Jon] as the broker of a key barter trade in the 1990s with Pakistan that significantly advanced Pyongyang’s nuclear infrastructure. The agreement resulted in North Korea shipping parts for long-range missiles to Islamabad in exchange for A.Q. Khan sending centrifuge equipment used in producing nuclear fuel.

No source is provided, and the article is datelined Seoul, so it’s at least possible that Solomon interviewed Hwang. (He’s been more available lately than ever before, even speaking publicly in Washington earlier this year.) But most readers won’t be aware that a little-known web publication, DailyNK, carried this story on August 11.

Obscuring the source of the Hwang interview would have a double benefit: it would relieve readers of the burden of assessing the credibility of DailyNK — affectionately known in these precincts as the Daily Who Knows? — and it would relieve Solomon of any need to credit the DailyNK’s Kim Yong Hun.

I sure hope I’m mistaken, but it wouldn’t be the first time a reporter for a major newspaper denied credit to a colleague elsewhere, would it?

Strike Two

The second and far more troublesome problem in the article is what looks like the most glaring case of rowback in recent memory. (Bear with me here.)

If you are reading this, you’ll probably know that North Korea is rumored to be supplying nuclear technology to Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar). The picture is still not very clear, but as far as the available evidence goes, missile exports look like a better bet than nuclear exports. There’s a hint of Burmese interest in gas centrifuges in the detailed May 2010 report by Robert Kelley and Ali Fowle, which might suggest a Korean connection, maybe, but on balance, it depicts a nuclear program that is not receiving the benefit of foreign expertise. By contrast, the leaked report of Burmese Gen. Shwe Mann’s visit to Pyongyang in 2008 — hosted by none other than Mr. Jon Byong Ho — prominently describes a visit to a ballistic missile factory. The subject of nuclear technology doesn’t come up. Perhaps it was too sensitive to be included in the trip report?

(See also this January 2010 ISIS report, which hesitates to draw premature conclusions on the NK-Burma nuclear angle.)

Nevertheless, the suspicion of nuclear trade persists despite a lack of much (public) evidence. It’s voiced in the State Department’s 2010 Compliance Report, for example. What you might not know, though, is that almost everything published on the subject tracks back to a May 29, 2009 article by Jay Solomon.

After describing North Korea’s involvement in missile programs across the Middle East, the 2009 article mentions the leading role of North Korea’s Namchongang Trading Company (Yun Ho-jin, Director) in building the hidden nuclear reactor in Syria. It then segues to Burma:

U.S. and Asian officials said Nomchongang was also detected selling equipment to Myanmar that could be used for a nuclear program. Exchanges between senior North Korean and Myanmar military officers have increased, these officials say. Myanmar may be seeking to replicate North Korea’s weapons development as a deterrent to Western pressure, the officials say.

But now, on August 31, 2010, we learn that the exports to Burma actually might have to do with ballistic missiles, and may or may not involve Namchongang:

In June, Japan’s Ministry of Economy and Trade banned Tokyo-based Toko Boeki Trading Co. and device maker Riken Denshi from conducting international trade after three of their affiliated executives, one of them an ethnic Korean, were arrested trying to send machine tools on an export-control list to Myanmar using a dummy company in Malaysia. The equipment could be used to develop either ballistic missiles or centrifuges for a uranium-enrichment program, according to weapons experts. And the U.N. in its May report said it was examining “suspicious” ties between Mr. Yun’s Namchongang Trading and Myanmar, possibly linked to these activities in Japan.

Well. Let’s just hope that in mentioning Namchongang, the report of the Panel of Experts (see page 19, paragraph 61) relied on something more than Solomon’s May 29, 2009 article, or items citing it.

Now, perhaps I’m mistaken, and the maybe-nuclear-but-definitely-Namchongang transactions mentioned on May 29, 2009 are distinct from the maybe-nuclear, maybe-missile, maybe-Namchongang-related transactions mentioned on August 31, 2010. But if Solomon had the goods on Namchongang’s nuclear trade in Burma, why would he fail to mention it in the second article?

(In case you’re wondering, the mystery equipment appears to have been shipments of cylindrical grinders and magnetometers, which could be used to make either gyroscopes (for missiles) or ring magnets (for centrifuges). LCR meters, which could be used to test just about any kind of electronic component, were apparently also sold.)

So here is my worry. Should the Six-Party Talks ever resume, it seems more likely than before that the U.S. will insist the North Koreans be forthcoming on nuclear exports. If the North Koreans should stonewall on Burma and the talks should collapse as a result, I’d feel much better about the outcome if the evidence amounted to more than a paragraph in a newspaper article that the author has already started tip-toeing away from.

Final Notes

In the interests of setting a good example, I will cheerfully acknowledge if these concerns turn out to be misplaced. And if better evidence emerges for a DPRK-Burma nuclear trade, I’ll try to flag it before too long.

For a previous probing of a Solomon article, see here. See also Mark Hibbs’s take, here. For a previous look at the 2010 Compliance Report, go here.


  1. Ian (History)

    I don’t know if it passes your test of “better evidence” since it packages a lot of what you have presented in audio-visual form Joshua. However, Burmese military defectors continue to assert that there is an intention to develop a nuclear weapon programme. The DVB colleagues have put online a film that first showed on Al Jazeera in the summer. The film is mainly about a nascent ballistic missile programme (and a lot of tunnels!) but they start to address nuclear issues about 34 minutes in, including commentary by Bob Kelley. It is online here”.

    • joshua (History)

      Yes, I’ve seen the documentary and read the report. I find them credible. But they don’t exhibit much evidence of foreign help in the nuclear area, unless you count sending people to Russia for education and buying machining centers from Germany and other places. To the contrary, it appears that Burma has been going it alone up to now.

  2. Daniel pinkston (History)

    Chŏn is in his mid 80s. His deputy, Paek Se-bong, has been managing the real operations of the Second Economic Committee for some time now.

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