Weapons seizure hits North Korea hard
By Brian McCartan
BANGKOK - The detention in Thailand of a cargo plane transporting weapons and
the arrest of its crew remain shrouded in mystery. The destination of the
weapons and identity of their buyers is uncertain. American officials and
analysts believe, however, that the intervention dealt a blow to North Korea's
The Air West flight's outbound journey was normal enough. After leaving
Ukraine, the aircraft stopped to refuel in Azerbaijan, Dubai in the United Arab
Emirates (UAE), and Bangkok before landing in Pyongyang. After picking up the
cargo in North Korea, the crew told authorities, the flight was scheduled to
stop in Bangkok, Sri Lanka, the UAE and finally Ukraine. What they haven't told
investigators is where they planned to offload the weapons.
Thai authorities are baffled about why the plane stopped in Bangkok on the
return trip since Thailand is known for close ties to the United States. A more
direct route would have been over China, stopping in Lashio or Mandalay in
Myanmar to refuel. Another flight from North Korea in November 2008 took this
route in an attempt to take cargo to Iran that American authorities feared
could be related to weapons of mass destruction. That flight was blocked when
India refused to allow the plane to fly through its airspace. The Air West
flight's scheduled stop in Colombo, Sri Lanka, was likely an attempt to avoid a
A search of the plane's cargo after a tip-off from US intelligence sources
found 35 tonnes of crated weapons inside the fuselage, according to Thai
authorities. The haul included large numbers of rocket propelled grenades
(RPGs), man-portable surface-to-air missiles, and two mobile multiple-rocket
launchers, either M-1985 or M-1991's, capable of firing 240mm rockets. The
weapons were removed by the Thai military to Takhili Air Force base in central
Nakhon Sawan, north of Bangkok. Thai authorities estimated the value of the
cargo at around US$18 million. The crew, who are likely to be telling the
truth, said they believed they were carrying heavy equipment for oil
The next step is for the weapons to be inventoried and reported to the UN's
North Korea Sanctions Committee, which is mandated to investigate violations of
the sanctions. Under UN resolutions, the weapons should then be destroyed,
although there is some debate in Thailand about whether the weapons will be
kept for its armed forces.
The crew, four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus, are all men in their 50s
and former members of the Soviet air force. Mikhail Petukhov, the Belarusian
pilot, served in the Soviet air force for almost 20 years. Kazakh
Communications Ministry Civil Aviation Committee chairman, Radilbek Adimolda,
said the Kazakh pilots were on leave from East Wind, a Kazakh private airline.
International trafficking networks make extensive use of former Soviet pilots
and planes, researchers say. The planes are notorious for being under-serviced
and in violation of safety standards. The pilots, often without work for
months, are willing to fly unsafe aircraft to obscure destinations and to look
the other way on the cargo. The people behind the networks are rarely
Thai authorities are holding the men in Klong Prem prison on charges of
falsifying information on their cargo declaration and transporting weapons. If
convicted the men could face up to 10 years in Thai prison. Requests for bail
All the men were working on contract to Air West, a company registered in the
Republic of Georgia and holding the registration for the Ilyushin IL-76
freighter seized in Bangkok. The IL-76 was designed to carry heavy machinery to
remote areas of Russia. Its ability to land on rough airstrips in remote
regions makes it an ideal aircraft for transporting illicit cargoes.
The aircraft allegedly has a long involvement in transporting shady cargos.
According to sources in the airfreight business, planes frequently change hands
and registration numbers. The IL-76 detained in Bangkok was previously owned by
a private Kazakh company, East Wing, then bought by Kazakh airline Beibers,
which in turn sold it on to Air West, Georgia, in October, according to the
Kazakh Transportation and Communications Ministry. Air West was registered in
Batumi, Georgia in 2008 and its office is in the Ukraine.
For this flight, the plane was leased out to SP Transport Limited, a Ukrainian
company. New Zealand authorities are also investigating a company with the same
name. Both companies have a Lu Zhang listed as their director. The New Zealand
company's shares are held by VICAM (Auckland) Ltd, which in turn is owned by
Vanuatu-based GT Group.
Security analysts and freight operators say this type of paper trail is par for
the course. Companies are shut down after being identified as trafficking in
weapons or other illicit items or violation of air safety regulations, then
open under different names. Aircraft similarly change registration, or are sold
on or leased to other freight companies to disguise their business.
The detention of plane and crew in Bangkok may scare off would-be customers for
North Korean arms. It is the second time a large weapons shipment has been
interdicted since the imposition of UN Resolution 1874, passed in response to
Pyongyang's refusal to stop its uranium enrichment program and ballistic
missile tests held earlier this year. The resolution bans the transfer of heavy
weapons as well as missiles and spare parts from North Korea and calls on
countries to "inspect and destroy" those weapons.
Resolution 1874 is non-binding and relies on the resolve of member countries to
enforce. However, in contrast to the rare seizure of North Korean weapons in
years prior to the resolution, several actions have taken place since June to
interdict stop North Korean arms shipments. A North Korea-registered vessel
believed to be carrying weapons for Myanmar was forced to turn back in July
after that country declared it would not allow the ship to dock. United Arab
Emirates authorities in August seized a Bahamian-flagged ship, the
ANL-Australia, which was found to be carrying North Korean military equipment
destined for Iran and listed in the ship's manifest as oil-related. India has
stopped at least two more North Korean vessels in its waters waters, although
neither was found to be carrying weapons.
A halt in weapons sales would be a heavy blow to cash-starved North Korea,
especially combined with the cutting-off of South Korean handouts that have
kept the country's economy going. Arms are one of North Korea's biggest earners
of foreign currency earners. Analysts say the regime earns more than $1 billion
a year through arms sales, often to other rogue regimes or to rebel groups,
many connected to gross human rights abuses. Its biggest sales are ballistic
missiles to Iran and other Middle Eastern countries and possibly to Myanmar.
Some security analysts claim the Bangkok seizure could even force the reclusive
regime back into nuclear disarmament talks in order to win much-needed aid.
US envoy Stephen Bosworth was in Pyongyang days before the plane was detained,
on a mission to persuade North Korea to rejoin six-nation disarmament talks.
North Korean pulled out of the talks a year ago before concluding a deal with
China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US that would have ended its nuclear
program, and its pariah status, in exchange for international aid. Pyongyang in
April proclaimed the talks "dead" in April after international criticism of its
nuclear and missile tests.
North Korea and the US had reached a "common understanding" Bosworth said after
the talks, giving hope that talks could begin again sometime next year. He said
he emphasized the benefits North Korea would receive as a part of the present
US administration's policy of engagement.
The envoy's visit marked the first high-level contact between the Barack Obama
administration and the regime. Obama wrote a personal letter to North Korean
leader Kim Jong-il in conjunction with the effort to bring the country back to
the table. Although its contents have not been revealed, the letter was
reportedly delivered in early December.
The US praised Thailand for its help in interdiction the weapons shipment.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington two days after
the arrest, "We are very pleased to see strong action taken by the Thais and it
would not have been possible without strong action of the United Nations." The
US Embassy has refused to confirm or deny an American role in the incident,
although Thai officials have repeatedly cited American intelligence tipping
them off to the shipment.
This is the second time in two years that Thai authorities have supported
American efforts against international arms trafficking. In March 2008, US
intelligence and law enforcement agencies carried out a sting in Bangkok that
resulted in the arrest of international arms merchants Viktor Bout. Bout is
accused of arranging shipments of millions of dollars worth of weapons to rebel
and terrorist groups and governments around the world and has been indicted in
New York on four charges related to terrorism. He maintains the charges against
him are false. An attempt by the US to have him extradited was blocked by the
Thai courts in August.
Although Bout is not believed to have had a role in the shipment of arms
detained in Bangkok, there are some curious links to his trafficking network.
The weapons plane had been registered to three companies previously identified
by the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control as owned by
Bout. Beibers, the Kazakh company which sold the plane to Air West has been
linked to alleged Serbian arms trafficker Tomislav Damnjanovic.
The facilitators and buyers of this shipment so far remain a mystery. The
winding paper trail and fly-by-night companies involved make shipments such as
these difficult to trace. Initial speculation was that the shipment was
destined for Sri Lanka, Pakistan or the Middle East. In a commentary published
in the Washington Post on Friday, Dennis Blair, the US director for national
intelligence, gave a better indication of where the weapons had been destined
to go. "Teamwork among different agencies in the United States and partners
abroad just last week led to the interdiction of a Middle East-bound cargo of
North Korean weapons," he wrote.
Whatever the intended destination for the weapons, the seizure of the plane and
crew reiterates American resolve to isolate North Korea and force it back to
the negotiating table. It also shows its ability to call in favors from friends
to achieve this aim. For international arms merchants and their customers it
may be time to look for a different source of product.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist.