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U.S. Navy Turns Back North Korean Ship

Peter Crail

A North Korean cargo ship suspected of violating UN sanctions turned back to North Korea after a U.S. naval vessel confronted it in late May, U.S. officials said in June.

The New York Times reported June 12 that the United States suspected the ship was carrying short-range missiles to Myanmar (Burma), adding to long-standing concerns about military cooperation between the two Asian countries that may include North Korean aid to a possible illicit Myanmar nuclear program. (See ACT, July/August 2010.)

Two sets of UN sanctions prohibit North Korea from exporting any nuclear- or missile-related goods or technology. Pyongyang has a long history of selling ballistic missiles and ballistic missile technology to earn hard currency, which the isolated Communist regime finds difficult to obtain.

U.S. officials said that they sought cooperation from countries in the region to prevent the cargo ship M/V Light from reaching its destination and that a U.S. warship intercepted it in late May in the South China Sea to request an inspection. After repeatedly refusing requests to board, the Light turned back toward North Korea just prior to entering the Strait of Malacca, a 500 mile-wide waterway between Indonesia and Malaysia that serves as one of the world’s major sea lanes.

“Since we had alerted the Singaporean and Malaysian authorities, there might have been concern [in Pyongyang] whether it could pass through the straits without action by either of those countries,” White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Gary Samore told The Wall Street Journal June 14. Samore said North Korea claimed the shipment contained industrial chemicals bound for Bangladesh.

The United States was granted authorization to inspect the Light by Belize, where the ship is registered.

Belize allows its flag to be used as a “flag of convenience,” which means that a ship with a non-Belizean owner is registered in Belize and flies its flag. Such flags of convenience are often abused by smugglers seeking to obscure the ownership of a vessel, but the flag state maintains jurisdiction over the ship and can authorize boarding by a third party.

Belize signed a ship-boarding agreement with the United States under the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative in 2005. That agreement establishes a procedure for boarding ships suspected of trafficking in nonconventional weapons and related materials, including on the high seas.

UN Security Council Resolution 1874, adopted by the council in June 2009 in response to a second North Korean nuclear test, also calls on states to inspect vessels suspected of violating sanctions against North Korea on the high seas, with the consent of the flag state. After that resolution was adopted, diplomats told Arms Control Today that, in spite of the resolution’s language allowing high-seas interdiction, Washington was likely to rely primarily on cooperation from states in the region to carry out inspections rather than engage in forcible boarding. (See ACT, July/August 2009.)

Choosing to board the Light may have carried some risks, given the uncertainty regarding the vessel’s actual cargo. U.S. officials said that although they did not know for certain the contents aboard the ship, the behavior of its crew substantiated U.S. suspicions about its intentions.

Department of State spokesman Mark Toner told reporters June 13 that “the ship’s master refusing us permission to board it, as well as the fact that it turned and headed back to North Korea,” validated concerns that the ship was involved in illegal activity.

In several ways, the incident echoes a June 2009 interception of a North Korean vessel by a U.S. warship. Washington suspected that the cargo vessel Kang Nam was carrying conventional armaments bound for Myanmar in contravention of UN sanctions. At that time, the destroyer USS John McCain shadowed the North Korean-flagged ship, which eventually turned back to North Korea.

According to a recent unreleased report, obtained by Arms Control Today, by a UN panel overseeing sanctions against North Korea, Pyongyang rarely uses ships such as the Light and Kang Nam as part of its illicit trafficking operations.

In the report, the UN panel said that North Korea “relies only to a very limited extent on its own vessels to deliver illicit shipments to a recipient country,” generally doing so only when the route is short enough to avoid port calls where the shipment risks inspection and seizure.

The report also said that only a fraction of North Korean cargo vessels sailed under a foreign flag, which suggests that Pyongyang views the use of its own flag as “the best available protection against boarding on the high seas.” North Korea has relied instead on foreign-owned ships, as well as air transport, to smuggle goods, employing a range of masking techniques to circumvent UN sanctions, the report said.

Myanmar has pledged to honor its obligations under the UN sanctions against North Korea. Myanmar Vice President Thiha Thura U Tin Aung Myint Oo also told Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the senator’s June 1-3 visit to the country that Myanmar “does not have the economic strength” to pursue nuclear weapons, the country’s state-run media reported June 3.

The vessel that trailed the Kang Nam was named after McCain’s father and grandfather.