Tough to thwart North Korean arms exports


The cargo ship Kang Nam 1 has long been on a watch-list of North Korean vessels suspected of illicit trading. But it recently emerged from the shadows at the center of a cat-and-mouse game in Asian waters, tracked by U.S. warships, maritime reconnaissance planes and satellites under a United Nations resolution that bans Pyongyang from exporting arms of any kind and using the profits to sustain its military.

Since leaving the North Korean port of Nampo on June 17, the freighter has become a test case of how the U.N. Security Council resolution, passed unanimously after North Korea’s nuclear explosive test on May 25, will be implemented. In turn, this may indicate how major powers will deal with Iran if it continues its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The resolution tightens sanctions on North Korea imposed after its first underground nuclear test in October 2006. They barred the movement of weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles and related items to or from the North. The latest resolution extends the arms embargo and calls on U.N. member states to deny financial services or support for any prohibited North Korean activity.

But the resolution is full of loopholes and ambiguities. It “calls on,” but does not require or mandate, U.N. members to inspect all cargo going to or from North Korea that passes through their territory, including seaports and airports, if they have “information that provides reasonable grounds to believe” the cargo contains banned items.

How reliable is intelligence on secretive and tightly controlled North Korea? In the case of the Kang Nam 1, it would be probably be in the form of U.S. satellite photographs of cargo being loaded onto the freighter. But what does that tell if the cargo is boxed or wrapped?

According to South Korean and Japanese press reports, the Kang Nam 1 is heading for Myanmar and might be carrying anything from a small arms shipment to missile components.

The ship could have enough fuel to reach its destination. But many North Korean vessels are old, with limited range. This explains why some reports have said the Kang Nam 1 might call at Singapore to refuel.

In 2004, the military government in Myanmar reportedly tried but failed to buy Scud missile parts from North Korea. Since then, ties between the two have become closer and Pyongyang is believed to have supplied large amounts of arms and other assistance to Myanmar.

The Kang Nam 1 has been spotted making a number of visits to a port near Yangon. When it docked there in May 2007, the government issued a statement saying that the freighter had been allowed to enter port for repairs and take on supplies after being caught in a storm at sea. The statement said authorities had inspected the vessel and found no “suspicious cargo or military equipment” on board.

In line with international law, the recent U.N. Security Council resolution only permits inspections of merchant ships on the high seas with the consent of the nation whose flag the ship is flying.

In the case of the Kang Nam 1, this would mean getting approval from the North Korean government. It would certainly refuse. Pyongyang has declared repeatedly that it would regard forcible boarding as an act of war.

Without North Korean consent, the U.N. resolution “decides” that the flag state should direct the vessel to “an appropriate and convenient port” for the required inspection. The resolution does not authorize use or the threat of force.

The United States would be in a stronger position if it could invoke the terms of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a voluntary arrangement among countries since 2003 to curb trafficking in weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems and related materials to and from states and non-state actors of proliferation concern.

Under the PSI, the U.S. has negotiated reciprocal ship boarding agreements with nine nations that together register a majority of the world’s commercial shipping. Washington could also request the 95 countries that support the PSI to make inspections of suspect cargo entering their sea and airports. In the Asia-Pacific region, PSI supporters include Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Sri Lanka.

However, a number of countries where suspect North Korean ships or planes could transit while carrying prohibited cargo have not endorsed the PSI, either because of concerns it could breach freedom of navigation or because they do not want to offend North Korea or be aligned with a coalition led by the U.S. and its allies. These countries include China, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam.

Still, despite the flaws in international antiproliferation efforts, the latest report on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs concludes that pressure from the U.N. and the PSI have dissuaded some potential buyers from doing missile deals and that Pyongyang’s sales have almost certainly declined over the last decade.

The report, issued by the International Crisis Group on June 18, says that North Korea has responded by sending more of its exports of missile systems and components on planes instead of ships, and by offering increased technology transfers and licensing deals, which are harder to detect. Since the 1980s, Pyongyang has sold missile systems to Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

A country does not have to be a PSI member to cooperate on a case-by-case basis. Last August, the U.S. reportedly worked with India to deny overflight rights to a North Korean jet, which Washington believed was moving missile components from Iran to Myanmar.

In handling North Korea, China is the key player. It has more leverage over its nominal ally than any other country. As the North’s trade with Japan, South Korea and Western nations has fallen, it has become more dependent on China.

China’s share of North Korea’s foreign trade rose to 73 percent in 2008, up from 33 percent in 2003. China also provides about half the aid received by the North, as well as vital energy supplies.

Beijing wants to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula without causing a North Korean crisis. The U.S. and other PSI supporters know that if they exceed the authority of the U.N. Security Council, they risk losing Beijing’s support in this critical balancing act.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies.