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Iran Plane Made Pickups in N. Korea, Sources Say

June 17, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — An Iranian cargo plane was detected recently picking up containers in North Korea in what intelligence analysts suspect was a shopping trip for ballistic missiles or their components, South Korean sources said Monday.

Although North Korea long has been one of the world's largest producers of ballistic missiles -- and Iran one of its best customers --the intelligence is surprising because it may indicate that their arms trade has not diminished despite recent increased U.S. scrutiny of both nations' weapons programs.

"It has been confirmed that the containers arrived in Iran from North Korea, but the contents have not been confirmed," a South Korean official said on condition of anonymity.

South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported Monday that the plane was spotted six times picking up sealed containers at Pyongyang's Sunan Airport since April. The paper quoted U.S. and South Korean intelligence sources as saying the containers' size indicated that the cargo was most likely medium-range Rodong missiles.

"Offhand, it's not easy to imagine what else the Iranians would have sent a cargo plane for," said one U.S. source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But analyst Hong Yong Pyo of Seoul's Hanyang University said, "I don't think the North Koreans would engage in behavior that could encourage hard-liners in the United States."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher would not confirm or deny the reports.

The newspaper report suggested that Pyongyang had switched to transporting missiles by air for fear that a sea shipment might be intercepted. In December, a ship carrying North Korean missiles to Yemen was detained by Spanish forces at U.S. request but was released because the shipment was legal.

*

Chi Jung Nam of The Times' Seoul Bureau and Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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