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.

Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters
Police escort cargo plane captain Ilyas Issakov (front) and Alexandr Zrydnev, both from Kazakhstan, at The Criminal Court in Bangkok on Monday.

The crew of an impounded cargo plane carrying arms from North Korea was brought before a criminal court Monday and ordered to remain in police detention for 12 days, as authorities continue to search their cache.

The cargo plane was grounded Friday after landing at a military-run airport in Bangkok. The air crew, four Kazaks and a Belarusian, claimed they were transporting oil-drilling equipment. Thai police said they had found sealed boxes of rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-fired missiles, and other small arms.

The seizure marks a blow to North Korea, which is subject to strict UN Security Council sanctions on the sale of weapons. The US accuses North Korea of exporting nuclear technology to countries such as Iran, though no such materiel was found aboard this flight. In June, the UN tightened sanctions on conventional North Korea military hardware in response to its nuclear tests. Under the sanctions, Every UN member state supposed to report any weapons shipments. Thailand's 35-ton seizure is the biggest haul to date.

But key questions remain over what was the final destination of the air cargo and the identity of the buyers, as well as the decision by the crew to refuel in Thailand, a longstanding US military ally.

Cargo destination unclear

Thai police searched the Georgian-registered Ilyushin-76 plane on an initial tip-off from US intelligence. Other foreign governments have also gotten involved in tracking the seized arms, says a Thai intelligence official. “A lot of people are helping us on this one,” he says.

The air crew, who face charges of importing illegal arms into Thailand, have told police investigators that the plane originated in Ukraine and was returning via the Middle East. Thai newspapers quoted police officials saying the cargo was to be offloaded in the Middle East.

Crew members have given differing versions of the flight path, says Panitan Wattanyagorn, a government spokesman. “We don’t know exactly where the plane was heading,” he says.

The plane’s next stated refueling stop was Sri Lanka, but authorities there have said they had no knowledge of it. A crew member told The New York Times that they were stopping in the UAE before returning to Ukraine.

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.

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.

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