The seizure at Bangkok’s airport of 35 tons of North Korean arms being shipped by plane raises a disturbing question: How many weapons is North Korea managing to ship undetected to Iran and other clients worldwide?
The commander of US troops in Korea, General Walter Sharp, cited Monday the UN resolution imposing stringent sanctions on North Korean weapons sales as the key to halting the shipments. He refrained, however, from talking about the intelligence that tipped off authorities in Thailand to the cargo they found aboard the plane during a refueling stop at Don Muang military airport.
He acknowledged frustration in determining how important the cargo was in the overall scheme of North Korean arms exports. “I’d like to know the answer,” he said at a seminar in Washington, at which he largely focused on strengthening the US military alliance with South Korea.
Analysts say it is hard to judge how successful the UN sanctions resolution, adopted in June shortly after North Korea’s second nuclear test, has really been.
“I don’t think they have accurate figures,” says Victor Cha, former director of Asia affairs at the National Cecurity Council during the presidency of George W. Bush. “The big thing is we need [is] better cooperation from China and Russia.”
Although both China and Russia joined in supporting the UN resolution, some analysts suspect that North Korea is still able to ship arms through both countries by plane or overland. “I don’t think we know about them,” says Mr. Cha, who chairs the Korea program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “That’s the hardest thing.”
Cha cites the recent visit of China’s Premier Wen Jiabao to North Korea, followed by that of China’s defense minister, as fueling fears that North Korea may on occasion be able to send arms surreptitiously through China.
He remains confident, however, of cooperation among Southeast Asian nations, from Singapore to Thailand. Even Burma (Myanmar), he notes, is refusing arms shipments from North Korea after a North Korean freighter believed to be seeking to break an arms embargo on Burma turned back as US ships tracked it.
Thai authorities continue to hold five men, four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus, found aboard the plane, a Russian-made Ilyushin-76 registered in Georgia. They said they were carrying oil drilling equipment when they asked to land and refuel, but instead the plane was discovered to have missile components along with rocket-propelled grenades and other weaponry.
South Korean analysts see the seizure of the cargo as evidence of a “two-track" strategy pursued by the US in dealing with North Korea.
Kim Yeon-soo, a professor at the Korea National Defense University, was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying the US “has employed a two-track strategy of sanctions and negotiations.” He called the incident “a chance to show that, apart from dialogue, sanctions will continue for North Korea’s behavior.”
One question is the extent to which South Korea is willing to act aggressively to stop North Korean arms shipments by sea – or to support US aims outside Korea.
North Korea weapons: Why did pilots stop for fuel in Thailand? Read more here.