North Korean ship poses challenge for US allies along its route
Thailand and Singapore have longstanding military ties with America but also trade with Burma, where the vessel is headed.
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Its action also raises the question of how far United States allies in Asia are prepared to go to enforce a comprehensive United Nations ban on North Korean arms exports. Should the Kang Nam, the North Korean-registered ship at the center of the row, seek to refuel in Singapore or another port, the ban would be put to the test.
Under the UN Security Council resolution, adopted after North Korea's May 25 nuclear test, vessels suspected of breaking the embargo must undergo inspection, either on the high seas or at port. But any inspection depends on the cooperation of a ship's captain. Few believe that the Kang Nam would comply.
UN resolution requires inspection
Within Southeast Asia, the US can count on longstanding military ties with Singapore and Thailand, both of which trade with Burma. An interception by any of their naval forces seems highly unlikely. Singapore has said that it would act "appropriately" if the Kang Nam docks there.
South Korean TV said Tuesday that the ship, which is being tailed by a US Navy destroyer, was 200 nautical miles southeast of Shanghai. Earlier, the Irrawaddy, a news website run by Burmese exiles in Thailand, reported that the ship would dock within days at Thilawa, a deepwater port in Burma. It reportedly sailed from North Korea on June 17.
The UN resolution requires port authorities to check suspicious North Korean cargo ships for contraband. A UN member country could ask Burma to inspect the vessel on arrival. But that raises the question of what constitutes a proper search, says Mr. Pinkston.
North Korea and Burma are pariah states in the eyes of many Western powers. In turn, both countries rely on China for diplomatic and economic support in the face of Western sanctions.
N. Korea eager for foreign currency
The Kang Nam is believed to be carrying conventional small arms. In the past, North Korea has sold artillery and rocket launchers to Burma, says Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based journalist and author of several books on both countries. In 2007, the same vessel docked in Burma and offloaded some heavy equipment, fueling suspicions of weapon systems transfers.