Saturday, December 19, 2009

North Korea: Arms smuggling attempt - was it a U.S. trap?

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A somewhat amateurish attempt to clandestinely transport a large consignment of weapons from North Korea to an as yet unknown destination has ended in the consignment, the aircraft transporting it and its crew falling into the hands of security officials from the US and Thailand, who are presently interrogating the crew and examining the consignment and its documentation.

2. The aircraft, which was transporting the consignment, has been identified as an Ilyushin 76 of a dubious background whose operators figured on the black-list of many countries either because of their poor safety standards or because of the suspicion that they were involved in gun-running. The aircraft had a crew of five of whom four were reportedly from Kazakhstan and the fifth was from Belarus.

3.The “Wall Street Journal” has quoted the AeroTransport Data Bank, an Internet service that tracks aircraft, as saying that the plane had recently been seen at airports in Podgorica, Montenegro, and Bujumbura, Burundi. According to the same paper, Russia's Interfax News Agency has cited a senior transport ministry official in Khazakstan, Radilbek Adimolda, as saying at a news conference that the detained Ilyushin-76 was previously owned by a Kazakh airline, East Wing. The plane was acquired in October by Air West Georgia. The WSJ also says that the East Wing is on the European Union's blacklist of airlines prohibited from flying in the EU because they violate global air-safety rules. According to AeroTransport Data Bank, East Wing is the successor to another Kazakh airline, GST Aero Co., which also is on the EU blacklist. The WSJ has reported that investigators at Amnesty International and other advocacy organizations have linked GST to international arms trafficking. Mr. Adimolda said the four Kazakh members of the crew were listed among East Wing's staff, but were on unpaid leave.

4.The aircraft, without any consignment on board, came to Bangkok from the United Arab Emirates on December 9. It was reportedly allowed by the Thai authorities to refuel at the Don Mueang airport in Bangkok. After refueling, it took off for Pyongyang. When it returned to Don Mueang from Pyongyang with the consignment on December 12 the Thai authorities arrested the crew and took the plane in their custody for examination of its consignment.

5. It has been reported that both during the onward and return journey the aircraft was allowed to land in a Thai military airport for refueling. This is surprising and indicates that US intelligence officials were probably already in touch with the crew before the aircraft left the UAE for Pyongyang and facilitated its refueling at the airport in Bangkok in order to lay a trap for capturing the arms consignment during the return journey. If the crew had not been co-operating with the Americans, they would have got suspicious by the ease with which they were able to get the aircraft refueled during the onward journey and avoided re-touching Bangkok during the return journey.

6. According to media reports in Thailand and South Korea, the plane was carrying about 35 tons of arms and ammunition, including surface-to-air missile parts. Though the crew have reportedly been saying that they were under the impression that the consignment consisted of oil drilling equipment and that they were not aware that it contained weapons, this is not believable. The Americans, who are closely involved in the investigation and the interrogation of the crew, must be able to find out who had ordered the consignment. The needle of suspicion points to Pakistan or Iran.

7. If it was Iran, by now, the US would have gone to town with their allegations against Teheran. The fact that they have not yet done so indicates that they are not yet certain on this. Pakistan has been clandestinely purchasing missiles and missile parts from North Korea and has been using its own aircraft as well as hired planes to transport them.

8. It is an important success for the US in its efforts to stop gun-running by North Korea, but it is unlikely to have any deterrent effect on North Korea. It will continue to look for opportunities for gun-running in order to earn foreign exchange. ( 18-12-09)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

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