North Korean ship thwarted on way to Burma (Myanmar)

A US destroyer forced back a North Korean freighter ship that was possibly on its way through the South China Sea to Burma (Myanmar) with military cargo. It is not clear if the cargo was nuclear or conventional weaponry.

For the second time in two years, a US Navy destroyer has shadowed a North Korean vessel presumed to be carrying military cargo and forced it to return to North Korea. The White House views the episode as a significant success in the effort to enforce sanctions against North Korea.

US officials here confirmed on Monday that the North Korean vessel – flying under the flag of the tiny central American nation of Belize – reversed course after the destroyer McCampbell sighted it in late May off China’s southeastern coast. The McCampbell followed the vessel as it moved south toward the Straits of Malacca, according to this account, before the North Koreans turn back.

“It’s definitely a win,” says Gary Samore, the top White House nuclear adviser. Mr. Samore cites the success in getting the North Korean vessel to turn around as a demonstration of the effectiveness of UN Security Council resolutions passed after North Korea’s nuclear test of October 2006 and May 2009 calling for enforcement of sanctions against North Korean military exports.

Although the specific nature of the cargo was not confirmed, the vessel was believed to be carrying components for missiles for Burma (Myanmar), which faces an arms embargo from many Western countries. Intelligence analysts say the same vessel is linked to previous shipments to Burma, with whom North Korea is suspected of cooperating in a program for enriching uranium for nuclear warheads. In addition, North Korea is believed to have shipped conventional arms, including rifles and machine guns, to Burma.

There were "grounds for inspection" of the ship says Samore. The North Korean captain refused to submit the ship to inspection, increasing suspicions of the nature of the cargo. He might have had no choice, however, if the vessel had to refuel on the way off Singapore or Malaysia.

The government of Belize, where the ship was registered, was “very cooperative” about the right to inspect the cargo, says Samore. Other Southeast Asian nations also agreed on the need to see what the ship was carrying.

“A number said they had had experience in the past in inspecting North Korean vessels,” Samore goes on. As for Burma, he says, “the Burmese said they were honoring obligations” under the UN Security Council resolutions.

The episode recalled a similar experience in July 2009 when a North Korean vessel turned back after the destroyer McCain – named for Sen. John McCain’s father and grandfather, who were both US Navy admirals – shadowed it down the China coast. Mr. Cain, visiting Burma earlier this month, was told the country was too poor to have a nuclear weapons program.

Jeffrey Lewis of the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies cites a wide range of circumstantial evidence that suggests Burma's interest in building nuclear warheads.

“We are making a lot of inferences,” he says. “The primary allegation of a nuclear program concerns equipment seen in workshops… . We have all this data, which I find incredibly suspicious.”

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