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North Korea weapons: Why did pilots stop for fuel in Thailand?

Thailand today brought the crew of an impounded cargo plane carrying North Korea weapons before a criminal court. The circumstances of the seizure – like why a plane with illicit arms stopped in US ally territory for refueling – is raising questions.

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In August, authorities in the UAE seized a shipment of North Korean military equipment aboard a ship headed to nearby Iran. The ship manifest listed the equipment as oil-related. The seizure was among the first under the UN sanctions and involved an Australian ship and an Italian trading company.

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Suspicions that flight was a set-up

The cargo plane stopped to refuel Dec. 9 in Bangkok on its outward journey, Mr. Panitan says. It was empty and wasn't searched at the time.

Observers say it’s unclear why the crew would make multiple refueling stops if they were carrying illicit cargo. Moreover, Thailand has a history of cooperating with the US on high-profile interdictions, making it a risky stopover for a plane carrying 35 tons of North Korean weapons.

These interdictions include the arrest and rendition in 2003 of Hambali, a senior al-Qaeda operative in Southeast Asia. Last year, the US Drug Enforcement Agency lured Viktor Bout, a Russian businessman and alleged arms dealer, to Bangkok in an elaborate sting operation. In August, a Thai court rejected a US extradition request against Mr. Bout. An appeal is pending.

“I think the whole thing was stage-managed from start to finish,” says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Bangkok and a retired CIA official. He said the crew may have been part of the set-up and was likely to be quietly deported once the fuss dies down.

The fact that the flight refueled at a military-run airport in Bangkok, a hub for US intelligence gathering, suggests a degree of complicity in a seizure that will humiliate North Korea’s leadership, claims Mr. Quaglia. “It’s a little bit hard to swallow that they just stopped for gas,” he says.

But a Thai intelligence source said the crew had requested a refueling stop and may have overlooked the risk of detection. “They’ve done it many times and they don’t get caught, so they get careless,” he says.

The plane has been impounded at a military base in northern Thailand, where specialists are inspecting the weapons, including some still sealed in crates, says Panitan, the government spokesman. A total of 150 military pieces had been identified, he added.

North Korea is a major producer of conventional weapons for its own military and is believed to earn substantial amount from exporting surplus arms to foreign governments and insurgent groups.