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     Sep 1, 2009
Storm over North Korea-Iran arms vessel
By Donald Kirk

WASHINGTON - The seizure by the United Arab Emirates of a ship carrying North Korean rocket-propelled grenades and other conventional weapons, reportedly for delivery to Iran, belies the seriousness of North Korea's moves toward reconciliation in recent weeks.

United States analysts believe the primary motive for North Korea's conciliatory gestures may be to get the US and other countries to ease up on the enforcement of tougher sanctions on North Korea's exports of weapons imposed after North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test on May 25.

The export of apparently conventional weapons to Iran might not have been a reason to hold the Australian-owned vessel and confiscate its cargo, before the United Nations Security Council


firmly imposed the sanctions on June 12. Previous UN sanctions were not as tough - and were often ignored by North Korea's closest friends and one-time Korean War allies, China and Russia.

The United Arab Emirates is now asking the sanctions committee of the UN Security Council what to do with the weapon-laden cargo of the ANL Australia which was carried in crates marked as machinery parts when the vessel was boarded at Dubai.

A UN diplomat whose country is represented on the sanctions committee told the Financial Times that the vessel has now been allowed to leave the UAE. He said the consignment had been ordered by Iran's TSS, a company said to be linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and previously subject to international bans on importing weapons-related items. The UAE has confirmed that the exporting company was an Italian shipper, Otim, which exported the items from its Shanghai office.

But Tehran has denied these reports as a as "Zionist" conspiracy aimed at diverting global attention from the positive results of a new UN nuclear watchdog report on Iran's nuclear program, the local Fars news agency reported.

The seizure of the ANL Australia, which took place about a month ago, was the first made under the new sanctions. Indian authorities detained and searched a North Korean vessel in early August, but found only sugar on board. UN resolution 1874 bans all arms exports from North Korea and authorizes states to search suspicious ships and seize and destroy banned items.

Another North Korean vessel, believed to be on its way to Myanmar, turned back to North Korea in June after a US destroyer, the USS John McCain, tailed it as it was sailing south off the China coast.

The ANL Australia has been seized as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il appeared to be looking for ways to draw the US into the two-sided dialogue that he has long sought in place of six-party talks, to which the North has said it would not return. The UN Security Council sent letters to Tehran and Pyongyang on August 25 informing them of the seizure, demanding a response within 15 days.

Kim began his goodwill offensive on August 4 when he met with former US president Bill Clinton for three hours and 17 minutes. Clinton flew back to Los Angeles bringing with him two female journalists who had been held for 140 days after they were picked up on North Korea's Tumen River border with China filming a piece on North Korean human-rights issues.

Although Clinton flew on a private plane provided by a wealthy California business figure, on a visit that the White House insisted was "unofficial", he obviously relayed messages and briefed US President Barack Obama on his return to the US.

Kim Jong-il followed up that gesture by releasing a technician working for Hyundai Asan, the company responsible for developing the special economic complex at Kaesong and the tourist zone at Mount Kumkang. Kim had met with the Hyundai Asan chairwoman, Hyun Jeong-eun, and he has since let down restrictions on access to the complex and re-opened the city of Kaesong, an ancient Korean capital beside the zone, to South Korean tourists.

Kim Jong-il has also agreed to allow the first reunions in nearly two years of Korean families separated by the Korean War. South and North Korean negotiators have set a date for the reunions in late September, with them scheduled to take place in the Kumkang zone above the North-South line by the east coast. The Kumkang zone, the site of a number of previous reunions, has been closed to tourism since North Korean guards last year shot and killed a South Korean woman tourist who had wandered outside the zone to look at the sunrise.

In the latest move, North Korea at the weekend freed the four-man crew of a small South Korean fishing boat that was picked up in late July after straying into North Korean waters on the east coast. The release of the crew contrasts with North Korea's refusal to release several hundred other fishermen from boats seized off both the east and west coasts in the last few decades.

In addition to these moves, North Korea sent a delegation to Seoul for the funeral on August 23 of Kim Dae-jung, the former South Korean president who met Kim Jong-il for the first inter-Korean summit in June 2000. Members of the delegation met South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, despite North Korean media regularly labeling him a "traitor" for his hardline stance on Pyongyang.

Kim Dae-jung's death on August 18 set off a wave of national mourning that North Korea is attempting to exploit by showing an interest in reconciliation - but without any plans to make concessions on its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

While waging a goodwill offensive, North Korea clearly needs to maintain if not increase its international arms trade as a source of badly needed revenue for its downward spiraling economy. North Korea also wants to circumvent financial sanctions included in the UN resolution. The sanctions have made North Korea a pariah in the global financial system whose institutions refuse to carry on normal business with North Korean companies.

North Korea's desire to shake off the sanctions is believed to rank ahead of concerns about Kim Jong-il's health as the reason for all the gestures of reconciliation.

Some observers have speculated that Kim, who reportedly suffered a stroke more than a year ago, wants to improve the atmosphere while grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong-un to replace him. His appearance in video footage with Clinton and then with the Hyundai Asan woman suggests he may not be nearing death, as some had thought, though clearly he appears drawn and has lost considerable weight.

The seizure of the vessel destined for Iran reflects the importance of a relationship nurtured by Kim in which Iran and North Korea have also been partners on everything from small arms to nukes.

North Korea has exported missiles to Iran while obtaining materiel and components for developing nuclear weapons with highly enriched uranium at their core. Iran insists it's nuclear program is only for producing energy while North Korea is only in the early stages of an enriched uranium program in addition to the long-established plutonium program at its complex at Yongbyon.

A sign of the tightness of the relationship between Iran and North Korea is that Iranian scientists were reportedly on the scene when North Korea tested a long-range Taepodong-2 missile on April 5 and at both its underground nuclear tests in October 2006 and again in May.

The seizure of the North Korean vessel at Dubai exposed the lengths to which North Korea is going to hide its international arms trade.

The ANL Australia was reportedly flying the flag of the Bahamas although ANL is headquartered in Melbourne. ANL is a subsidiary of CMA CGM, a global container ship firm headquartered in Marseilles.

Analysts believe the vessel and its cargo represent only a small portion of the business that North Korea is conducting in arms, including missiles.

Australian Transport Minister Anthony Albanese, when confirming the seizure of the vessel, said Australian authorities were now investigating whether ANL broke Australian laws in agreeing to transport North Korean arms. Australia, he said, took seriously its responsibilities to enforce UN sanctions.

Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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