Il­le­gal N. Korean arms fly in Chi­nese airspace

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - BY NI­CHOLAS KRALEV

Sus­pi­cions that China is fa­cil­i­tat­ing il­le­gal Nor th Korean arms ex­ports have gained new cre­dence as au­thor­i­ties in­ves­ti­gate a plane car­ry­ing weapons from Py­ongyang that was de­tained dur­ing a re­fu­el­ing stop in Thai­land.

The Rus­sian-made Ilyushin76, with a crew of four Kaza­khs and one man car­ry­ing a pass­port from Be­larus, was im­pounded Dec. 11 car­ry­ing 35 tons of weapons, re­port­edly in­clud­ing unassem­bled Tae­podong-2 mis­sile parts. The des­ti­na­tion of the plane was not con­firmed, but spe­cial­ists said Iran was likely.

Larry A. Niksch, a spe­cial­ist in Asian af­fairs at the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice who mon­i­tors North Korea’s pro­lif­er­a­tion ac­tiv­i­ties, said the Bangkok seizure raises se­ri­ous ques­tions about China’s role.

“Two-thirds of the flight path of that plane was over Chi­nese ter­ri­tory,” he said. “It should have raised Chi­nese sus­pi­cions.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion brought up con­cerns about North Korean use of Chi­nese airspace for arms ex­ports this sum­mer — shortly af­ter the adop­tion of a U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion ban­ning such trans­fers — but has yet to re­ceive a mean­ing­ful re­sponse, U.S. of­fi­cials said.

“North Korean pro­lif­er­a­tion by air is an im­por­tant mat­ter for us, and [Philip] Gold­berg brought it up dur­ing his meet­ings in July,” said one of­fi­cial, re­fer­ring to an Asia trip by the State Depart­ment en­voy for the im­ple­men­ta­tion of Res­o­lu­tion 1874. The of­fi­cial spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was dis­cussing pri­vate diplo­matic com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

The res­o­lu­tion, which China sup­ported, lists detailed pro­ce­dures on how to deal with sus­pi­cious ves­sels and il­le­gal cargo on the high seas, but it is some­what vague when it comes to air cargo.

In most cases, re­gard­less of the des­ti­na­tion of a flight orig­i­nat­ing in North Korea, it would have to re­fuel in China or at least fly over its ter­ri­tory, Mr. Niksch said.

China’s state-run Xin­hua News Agency quoted of­fi­cials in Bei­jing in July as say­ing that in­spec­tions of air cargo should be car­ried out only if there is spe­cific ev­i­dence of wrong­do­ing.

“China has been faith­fully im­ple­ment­ing rel­e­vant U.N. reso­lu­tions,” Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chi­nese Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton, said on Dec. 16. “As to whether the North Korean plane vi­o­lated U.N. reso­lu­tions, it’s up to the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to make a judg­ment.”

Vic­tor D. Cha, se­nior ad­viser at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies and a se­nior of­fi­cial in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, said Chi­nese of­fi­cials see “it as too big a step for them” to in­spect planes com­ing from North Korea. He said China’s goal is “to bal­ance just enough pres­sure to bring the North back to [nu­clear] talks but not so much as to col­lapse them.”

“It is one of the hard­est lifts on the coun­ter­pro­lif­er­a­tion side with China. If they close off airspace, that would make a huge dif­fer­ence in coun­ter­pro­lif­er­a­tion ef­forts. It’s eas­ier to stop a boat than a plane,” he said.

Mr. Cha, who was se­nior di­rec­tor for Asian af­fairs at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil un­der Mr. Bush, said the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion “al­ways raised this with China in the con­text” of the so­called Pro­lif­er­a­tion Se­cu­rity Ini­tia­tive, which is aimed at pre- vent­ing danger­ous weapons and ma­te­ri­als from fall­ing into the hands of rogue states or ter­ror­ists.

U.S. non­pro­lif­er­a­tion pol­icy in re­cent years has fo­cused on seaborne cargo, but an­a­lysts say North Korea prefers air traf­fic for trans­fers of weapons, tech­nol­ogy and sci­en­tists be­cause it is harder to track. The in­ci­dent in Thai­land marks the first time air cargo from the North has been in­ter­cepted. Car­goes from sev­eral ships have been in­ter­cepted in re­cent years.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been try­ing to per­suade North Korea to re­turn to six-na­tion talks on its nu­clear pro­gram, but Py­ongyang has been re­sist­ing. The State Depart­ment said Dec. 16 that U.S. spe­cial en­voy Stephen Bos­worth de­liv­ered a let­ter from Pres­i­dent Obama to North Korean leader Kim Jongil dur­ing Mr. Bos­worth’s visit to North Korea two weeks ago, but de­clined to share de­tails.

Many ques­tions re­main about the plane de­tained in Bangkok, which was searched af­ter a tip from U.S. in­tel­li­gence, Thai of­fi­cials said. One ques­tion is why the plane did not re­fuel in China. An­other is whether Bei­jing was aware that the Amer­i­cans were tracking the flight, Mr. Niksch said.

De­spite ini­tial re­ports that the weapons were des­tined for an­other coun­try in the re­gion — with Myan­mar be­ing the chief sus­pect — spe­cial­ists now view Iran as a more likely can­di­date.

The five crew mem­bers have re­fused to talk to the po­lice but have said in pub­lished in­ter­views that their des­ti­na­tion was the United Arab Emi­rates, which has been a tran­sit point for clan­des­tine North Korean arms ship­ments to Iran in the past.

As re­cently as July, United Arab Emi­rates au­thor­i­ties un­cov­ered an arms ship­ment from North Korea at the Dubai port. The weapons found in Bangkok ap­pear to be sim­i­lar to those in Dubai, spe­cial­ists and Thai of­fi­cials said.

One Thai of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was quoted Dec. 16 by Reuters news agency say­ing that “some of the com­po­nents found are be­lieved to be parts of unassem­bled Tae­podong-2 mis­siles.”

Py­ongyang’s long-range Tae­podong-2 is a prod­uct of joint ef­forts with Iran, co­in­cid­ing with Tehran’s de­vel­op­ment of the Sha­hab-5 and Sha­hab-6 mis­siles. Iran on Dec. 16 test-fired an­other mis­sile, the Sa­jjil-2, a two-stage, sur­face-to-sur­face mis­sile that has a po­ten­tial range of 1,200 miles.

“We need more in­for­ma­tion on the types of weapons found in Bangkok, but the pre­lim­i­nary in­for­ma­tion in­di­cates that some of the weaponry is of the type that Iran reg­u­larly sup­plies to Hezbol­lah,” Mr. Niksch said in ref­er­ence to the Le­banese mil­i­tant group.

“We know that Iran has rearmed Hezbol­lah sub­stan­tially since the 2006 war with Is­rael,” he said. “The dis­cov­ery in Dubai should leave no doubt that North Korea has been in­volved in this.”


Thai au­thor­i­ties un­load a Rus­sian-made Ilyushin-76 plane, which was carr ying 35 tons of weapons that re­por tedly in­cluded Tae­podong-2 mis­sile par ts. Also aboard were four Kaza­khs and a man with a Be­laru­sian pass­por t.

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