Monday, June 22, 2009

North Korean vessel exposes Pyongyang-Naypyitaw axis

by Mungpi

New Delhi (Mizzima) - As the United States continues to track a North Korean frigate off the coast of China, analysts are calling for closer inspection of the vessel in order to confirm suspected military to military ties between the two estranged Asian nations.

A Burmese military analyst said today the United States should request permission to search on board the North Korean ship, the Kang Nam, tracked by the US Navy since shortly after leaving port in its home country on Wednesday.

Htay Aung, a researcher at the Thailand-based Network for Democracy and Development (NDD), remarked, “If the vessel is confirmed to be the Kang Nam, then it should be searched as it is highly likely to carry weapons meant for Burma.”

Htay Aung, who has closely followed earlier incidences of the Kang Nam harboring at Rangoon’s Thilawa Port, said North Korea and Burma maintain a secret arms trade at least partly facilitated by the travels of the Kang Nam.

The U.S. Navy destroyer U.S.S. McCain is tracking the North Korean freighter, suspected of carrying missiles and related material, and has reportedly requested permission from headquarters to conduct a search of the ship.

North Korea, which recently conducted a missile test as well as a May 25th nuclear test, is under revamped United Nations sanctions which includes a complete ban on the import and export of weapons and allows ships suspected of carrying arms to be stopped and requested for permission to be searched.

On Sunday, a South Korean News Agency, YTN, citing unidentified intelligence sources, reported that the Kang Nam vessel is heading towards Burma, which is also subject to a U.S. and European Union’s arms embargo.

Htay Aung said the Kang Nam, one of five similar ships North Korea uses in its weapons trade, has been previously spotted at Burmese ports.

In May 2007, Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement which they circulated among diplomats and embassies in Burma saying a North Korean vessel, the Kang Nam I, had been allowed to harbor at Rangoon’s Thilawa Port on humanitarian grounds.

The statement said the vessel was allowed to harbor on humanitarian grounds as the vessel developed engine trouble while in Burmese coastal waters.

Inspection by Burmese authorities later reportedly found nothing suspicious, the statement added.

Similarly, Burmese authorities permitted another North Korean cargo ship, the MV Bong Hoafan, to anchor at a port in November 2006 under similar circumstances. Burmese authorities also announced then that they had conducted an inspection and "found no suspicious material or military equipment" o­n board.

“If the Kang Nam reaches the Burmese shore, the junta will make a similar statement as earlier made. But we know that North Korea and Burma have secret relations,” Htay Aung said.

Citing sources within the military establishment and civilians close to the military, Htay Aung said he has been aware that the Burmese junta is secretly working for the development of a nuclear arsenal.

Though it might be still a long way off for the Burmese regime to reach the stage of weaponry in their nuclear development, Htay Aung said with countries like North Korea assisting the regime, it might not be impossible.

“North Korea is already mostly isolated and they are looking at Burma as a regime of their own kind. So, it might not be too difficult for the regime to get the necessary expertise from North Korea," he said, adding that the continued thawing of Naypyitaw-Pyongyang relations is quite alarming.

In April 2007, North Korea and Burma restored diplomatic ties after a break of 24 years following an assassination attempt in Rangoon by North Korean Agents targeting visiting South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan.

But analysts said both countries have been working to restore relations for some time now, with former Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung, purged along with Military Intelligence Chief and then Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in November 2004, both secretly paying visits to North Korea.

According to an email message from Roland Watson, who closely monitors Burma’s defense developments for the U.S.-based Dictator Watch, the United States has fair knowledge about the Burmese regime’s nuclear ambitions and their activities but has withheld information.

“By identifying the Kang Nam and its cargo of missile components, the United States has demonstrated that it is well informed about these relationships,” he said.

He called on the U.S. government to reveal the information they have on the Burmese regime’s nuclear ambitions and their secret activities in trying to develop a nuclear weapon.

Under Section 10 of the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta's Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act of 2008, the State Department is required to prepare a report on military and intelligence aid to Burma. Subsection 3 of the Act covers weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

This report, under the terms of the Act, should have been made publicly available by the end of January, but the State Department has to date failed to come up with the report, Watson explained.

Meanwhile, Htay Aung said unless the frigate is thoroughly checked before it arrives off the Burmese coast, its cargo may never be known for certain.

Sanctions enacted against North Korea, though, specify force may not be used to board a vessel on the high seas in order to inspect its cargo. Consequently, if the Kang Nam is able to reach Burmese territorial waters without stopping en route then it may prove impossible for the United States to conduct an inspection without violating international law.

However, if, as some analysts suspect, the Kang Nam is due to call on port in Singapore prior to visiting Burma then the United States can request Singaporean authorities to conduct a search of the boat prior to permitting the vessel's onward travel.

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