A North Korean vessel believed to be transporting an illicit cargo of missile components to Myanmar was intercepted two weeks ago by U.S. naval forces, Reuters reported on Monday (see GSN, June 8).
High-ranking U.S. officials told the New York Times the North Korean ship was made to sail back to its home port following a maritime impasse and diplomatic prodding by the United States and Asian countries that stretched over multiple days.
The destroyer USS McCampbell intercepted the cargo vessel M/V Light, which was registered in Belize, on May 26 in waters south of Shanghai. U.S. officials had earlier begun monitoring the ship, which is suspected to have conducted other illicit cargo trips. The U.S. warship requested permission to send personnel to the cargo vessel under jurisdiction provided by Belize but was refused, the newspaper reported.
International sanctions passed against North Korea following its 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests outlaw all atomic and missile technology-related commerce with the Stalinist state. A 2010 U.N. Security Council resolution makes it lawful for U.N. member nations to search North Korean cargo shipped by land, air or sea (JoAnne Allen, Reuters/Yahoo!News, June 13).
In 2010, another cargo ship presumed to be carrying North Korean missile components was able to make it Myanmar before the United States could take action. Even under heightened U.N. sanctions, Pyongyang is still believed to be evading some international controls and selling its missile technology to nations such as Iran, the Times reported (see GSN, May 16).
"This case had an interesting wrinkle: the ship was North Korean, but it was flagged in Belize," one U.S. official said.
Belize is a participant of the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, whose members agree to exchange information and take action to interdict unconventional weapons and related materials before they can reach rogue states and terrorist organizations (see GSN, Dec. 10, 2010).
Obama administration officials said the Belize government authorized the U.S. Navy to search the North Korean ship. The Obama administration, though, decided not to force the issue, worried that a skirmish could have spiraling repercussions for security on the Korean Peninsula, an official said. The lack of hard evidence the ship was transporting missile parts also factored into the decision.
"There is always the chance that the North is setting us up for a raid that they know will find nothing. So we want to make sure we don't fall into a trap," an Obama official said.
By chance, a delegation of high-ranking officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including a Burmese delegate, was in the U.S. capital as the sea standoff enfolded. National Security Council coordinator for arms control and nonproliferation Gary Samore briefed the visiting ASEAN officials on the situation and of U.S. suspicions the ship was traveling to Myanmar.
"The Burmese official in the room protested that we were making accusations," one informed administration official said.
The United States has longstanding fears of illicit Burmese-North Korean military dealings, including possible North Korean sales to Myanmar of nuclear weapons technology. The Southeast Asian nation recently insisted to a visiting U.S. senator that it was not engaged in illegal weapons commerce with Pyongyang (see GSN, June 3).
Officials in Washington reject Myanmar's insistence of innocence but they are puzzled by its intentions. The missiles believed to be carried by the ship can travel as far as 350 miles, which would put China, India, Laos, and Thailand all within striking range. However, Myanmar would not be expected to fire missiles at those nations, according to the Times (David Sanger, New York Times, June 12).