International Herald Tribune: A large shipment of North Korean weapons seized here in December was bound for an airport in Iran, according to a Thai government report submitted to the United Nations and leaked to news agencies.
The International Herald Tribune
By THOMAS FULLER and CHOE SANG-HUN
BANGKOK — A large shipment of North Korean weapons seized here in December was bound for an airport in Iran, according to a Thai government report submitted to the United Nations and leaked to news agencies.
But a Thai government spokesman in Bangkok said the report, which was prepared by the Thai Foreign Ministry, was not conclusive because investigations were continuing.
Since a Russian-made aircraft landed in Bangkok on Dec. 11 laden with rockets, fuses, rocket-propelled grenades and what appeared to be missile parts, reports of where the aircraft was headed and who ordered the weapons have been sketchy and contradictory.
“We don’t know exactly where the plane was going,” Panitan Wattanayagorn, the Thai government spokesman, said in a telephone interview Sunday. The flight plan submitted by the crew of the aircraft listed several other airports, Mr. Panitan said. “The cargo could have been offloaded at any of those destinations.”
Diplomats and Thai government officials appear to agree that the weapons were manufactured and shipped from North Korea in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. There also appears to be agreement that the Thai authorities searched the aircraft on a tip-off by American intelligence agencies. The crew members, who are being detained at a Bangkok prison, say they were told that they were carrying oil-drilling equipment.
Numerous versions of airway bills and itineraries are circulating with little certainty as to which are authentic. The Thai lawyer for the crew, Somsak Saithong, said Sunday that the crew gave him an airway bill that says the weapons were ordered by an Iranian company. This appears to contradict other documents that list companies in Ukraine and Hong Kong.
According to Bloomberg News, which obtained a copy of the Thai government report, the cargo was destined for Mahrabad Airport in Tehran. The shipper was listed as Korea Mechanical Industry Co.
A U.N. Security Council committee is assessing the Thai report and is drafting letters that will be sent to North Korea and other governments requesting further information, according to the diplomats quoted by Bloomberg. The committee will report on the case to the full Security Council on Feb. 11.
The Security Council voted in June to punish North Korea for a second nuclear test conducted in May. The U.N. sanctions allow for inspections of cargo to and from North Korea and other restrictions.
Since the 1970s, the North Korean government has been accused of condoning, and even encouraging, its agencies to bring in badly needed hard currency through criminal activities, such as counterfeiting dollars and cigarettes, as well as selling weapons.
Revenues from illicit activities and sales of weapons are estimated to cover a large portion of North Korea’s annual trade deficit, which was estimated at $1.5 billion in 2008 by the South Korean government.
The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, is said to use proceeds funneled to his private coffers to buy the loyalty of elites as well as finance his nuclear and missile projects.
The main clients of North Korean weapons are countries in the Middle East, especially Iran and Syria.
Last August, the United Arab Emirates seized a ship carrying North Korean weapons that were bound for Iran in violation of the U.N. embargo. The weapons seized reportedly included rocket launchers, detonators, munitions and ammunition for rocket-propelled grenades.
Choe Sang-Hun reported from Seoul.