North Korean Weapons Mystery: Is Burma the Missing Link?

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The North Korean arms cargo interdicted in Bangkok seems unlikely to be bound for Burma, despite ties between

Thai military unloads weapons from North Korean cargo plane in Bangkok

Thai military unloads weapons from North Korean cargo plane in Bangkok

Pyongyang and the Naypyidaw military junta. Burmese junta strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe visited Sri Lanka in November, reciprocating a visit made by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in June this year.

The final destination of the cache remains unclear. The crew claim that the airplane was to land in Sri Lanka to refuel, eventually to conclude its journey in the Ukraine, apparently after the cargo had been dropped off elsewhere. Sri Lankan officials denied any knowledge that the embargo-breaking flight was going to land in that country.

Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said the plane was going to “a destination in the Middle East” to unload the weapons. Earlier this year, authorities in the United Arab Emirates seized 10 containers of North Korean arms on board a Bahamian-flagged ship. Like the Ilyushin-76 flight cargo, the manifest was listed as “oil drilling equipment.” The consignment was supposedly destined for Iran.

Other speculation surrounds a possible African destination. Sudan is also under a UN arms embargo, but acquires weapons from China and Russia among others, and has become increasingly close to states such as Iran and Burma in recent years. The latter two are thought to be key buyers in North Korea’s US $1bn per annum illicit arms bazaar, prompting speculation that a bevy of human rights violators are collaborating in an underground weapons trade.

Sudan’s deputy foreign minister visited Burma in October 2009 to discuss “beneficial cooperation on investment and energy sectors,” according to The New Light of Myanmar, a junta-backed publication based in Rangoon. Both Sudan and Burma are important sources of energy supply to China, which has fostered these links while Western competitors remain largely absent, due to international sanctions on both Khartoum and Naypyidaw. Sudan, like Burma, will stage controversial elections next year, amid speculation that oil-rich southern Sudan will later secede, a move that Khartoum is likely to resist with military force.

Another possible destination is Eritrea―a closed, autocratic regime akin to Kim Jong-il’s dictatorship in North Korea. Eritrea has unresolved border problems with Ethiopia, and is also supporting some Islamist factions in Somalia.

The US reportedly tipped off Thai authorities about the illicit cargo, according to Thai media reports that the government and Americans have not commented on. However it is not clear why the crew landed at Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport. If carrying illicit weaponry from Pyongyang, this move would appear foolhardy in extreme, given the close military and intelligence links between Thailand and the US.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton lauded the seizure, stating that it “shows that sanctions can prevent the proliferation of weapons and it shows that the international community when it stands together can make a very strong statement.”

Experts at Swedish-based SIPRI, an arms monitoring organization, traced the jet to an arms trader linked to Victor Bout, who is now in prison in Bangkok. It appears the airplane was most recently registered under a company called Beibars, linked to Serbian arms dealer Tomislav Dmanjanovic. According to SIPRI and the UN, past owners of the aircraft have trafficked arms to Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Chad. It had previously been registered with three companies identified by the US Department of the Treasury as firms controlled by Mr Bout, labeled the “Merchant of Death” for his role in supplying arms to an array of terrorist groups and insurgents around the world.

The US is trying to extradite Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in March last year, and later indicted on four terrorism charges in New York.

Earlier in 2009, the US navy shadowed a North Korean ship suspected of carrying arms to Burma, forcing it to turn back. North Korea is helping the Burmese junta with conventional weaponry, and there is some speculation that the nuclear-armed Communist regime in Pyongyang is sharing this technology with Naypyidaw.

However, Victor Cha, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that Burma is now wary of receiving arms transfers from North Korea. The Burmese junta is not under an international arms embargo, despite calls for one to be applied, and therefore does not have to rely on the underground arms trade to equip its military, which is believed to be the largest in Southeast Asia.

Cha acknowledged that precise analysis of what and how North Korea is selling, and to who, remains impossible. The Thai seizure is likely a drop in the ocean of what is estimated at a $1 billion annual trade. Cha cited a recent visit by China’s Premier Wen Jiabao to North Korea, followed by Beijing’s defense minister, as fueling fears that North Korea may on occasion be able to send arms through China, which shares a land border with Burma. China is thought to fear instability or economic collapse in North Korea, and Pyongyang relies on its illicit arms trade for foreign currency.

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