Suspected North Korean weapons ship returns home

Was this a triumph of international pressure? Or will the Kang Nam sail with another shipment soon?

The quiet return to port of a small, aging North Korean freighter was almost lost beneath the waves of news reports about North Korea's cyberattack.

Analysts say that North Korea decided to call back the Kang Nam I – suspected to be laden with arms destined for Burma (Myanmar) – rather than risk inspection of its cargo while refueling in Hong Kong or Singapore or risk embarrassing its trading partner, Burma, upon arrival. The US destroyer John McCain had been closely tracking the cargo ship.

"With the publicity of the Kang Nam, I can easily imagine Myanmar authorities took a look and figured unloading of material put them in jeopardy," says Charles "Jack" Pritchard, a former US negotiator with experience with North Korea.

"The bottom line is the latest UN Security Council resolution places emphasis on member nations in terms of reporting accountability and doing things," says Mr. Pritchard, now president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington.

That resolution (adopted after North Korea's nuclear test of May 25), he says, "has a lot more bite in it" than the one adopted after the North's first nuclear test in October 2006, which did not require recipient countries to report on cargos from North Korea.

Pritchard sees the return of the Kang Nam I to its home port of Nampo, on North Korea's west coast, as an initial step in a process that's likely "to take a cumulative effect."

"At some point," he says, "they'll decide they can't continue on the path they're on."

The voyage of the Kang Nam, however, drew attention to the US and its Asian allies as a test of their ability to stop North Korea from exporting arms ranging from AK-47 rifles to missile components and nuclear materiel.

Global resolve will be tested again

Kim Tae-woo, senior researcher and vice president of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, South Korea, predicts that North Korea "will try once again" to ship weapons despite the furor over the Kang Nam. "It's critically important to respond in the same manner," says Mr. Kim. "Next time will be very important."

Some analysts, however, say that the US response revealed the weakness of efforts to stop North Korean proliferation.

"The reluctance to board the ship shows the loophole in the UN resolution," says Bruce Klinger of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "You have the sleek John McCain unable to contain the Gulliver Kang Nam."

Mr. Klinger believes it will be necessary to press for a UN resolution giving absolute authority to board a ship rather than having to wait for the ship to be inspected at a port on the way.

If US forces were to board a ship, he notes, the United States would be in violation of international law. And if the ship turned out to have no military cargo on board, he says, the US would have difficulty justifying more boardings under any circumstances.

No one rules out the possibility that North Korea, by ordering the voyage of the Kang Nam, was dangling bait in front of the USS John McCain, challenging the US to act.

"That sounds plausible," says Mark Fitzpatrick, senior nonproliferation researcher at the Institute for International Strategic Studies in London. But he says that the ship probably had a load of AK-47s manufactured in North Korea. "They probably realized this wouldn't be a successful mission, and they couldn't stop at any port without being inspected."

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