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Seized North Korea arms cache still a mystery

The weaponry was impounded nearly two months ago in Thailand, and nationals of several countries are involved. Now some in the Thai government are worried about the mounting costs in the case.

February 05, 2010|By Mark Magnier

Reporting from Bangkok, Thailand — Nearly two months after the seizure here of a charter plane carrying 35 tons of weapons shipped from North Korea, the mystery remains as to where the rockets and other armaments were headed.

Iran, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates were reportedly listed on the flight plan; the former Soviet republic of Georgia was cited as the charter company's operations base; and the captain has said that Kiev, Ukraine, was the destination.

This week, Iran denied that it was the intended recipient, according to wire reports, arguing that it had no need for the weaponry because it has its own arms industry, which makes rockets, tanks, jet fighters, light submarines and missiles.

Predictably, North Korea is not talking.

The crew of the Russian-made aircraft, four citizens of Kazakhstan and one of Belarus, remains in detention on illegal arms possession charges awaiting a decision by Thailand's attorney general on whether to seek a trial.

Meanwhile, some in the Thai government are getting antsy.

Not only is the case mysterious, it is getting costly, government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said Wednesday.

"The air force and the airport are telling us they're going to bill us very soon," he said.

"We told them, 'Can you delay the billing?' "

Among the government's costs are those for guarding and storing the weapons, as well as maintaining the impounded Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane.

There's also the likely multimillion-dollar cost of disabling and disposing of the weapons in keeping with United Nations guidelines, he added.

"It gets quite expensive," Panitan said.

According to a report Thailand submitted over the weekend to the U.N., the company that shipped the weapons was the Korea Mechanical Industry Co., and the cache included 49 rockets, a rocket launcher and three crates of fuses and rocket-propelled grenades.

North Korean sales of missiles, missile parts and other arms to countries such as Iran, Syria and Myanmar are believed to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars annually to North Korea's hard-currency earnings.

Although the sale of such relatively routine weapons would normally not be illegal, in this case it violates the ban imposed under a U.N. resolution of June 2009 designed to punish North Korea after it fired a long-range missile and mounted a second nuclear test.

Thailand has asked the U.N. Security Council how to handle and dispose of the weapons, advice that has not so far been forthcoming.

Although many in the government say it is important that Thailand follow these international rules, others have expressed concern that taking a hard line risks the wrath of North Korea, which has reacted aggressively when it felt slighted or threatened.

In October 1983, three South Korean Cabinet members and 14 other South Korean officials were among those killed by a bomb planted in neighboring Myanmar, also known as Burma, by North Korean commandos.

"That was a very vicious retaliation in Burma," said Kraisak Choonhavan, a politician and political analyst. "People are a bit worried about that."

Pranee Thiparat, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said the seizure "can be an opportunity and a problem."

"Some have said it would put Thailand in a dangerous position, but it's our obligation under international obligations to prosecute this case."

Kazakhstan and Belarus have asked Thailand to return the crew members to their home countries. The Thai Cabinet has also called for their release. An attorney representing the crew has said the men didn't know what they were transporting.

The seized plane may be returned to its owner, Panitan said. Authorities at Bangkok's Don Muang airport, where the plane was impounded, are expected to make the final decision.

It's still possible that, despite its fairly pedestrian nature, the shipment had Iran as its ultimate destination, given Israel's success in disrupting weapons shipments destined for Hezbollah and other radical groups supported by Tehran, said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore. Nor is it uncommon for Eastern European citizens to be used in logistical roles for North Korean shipments, he added.

Bangkok, with its famous night life and good air connections, has hit the shady arms dealer radar before. In March 2008, Viktor Bout, a former officer in the Soviet military suspected of supplying weapons to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, was arrested at a hotel in Bangkok after Thai authorities received a tip from the U.S.

Washington has tried to extradite Bout to the U.S., a request that a Thai court rejected in August. Bout says he's an innocent businessman.

The fact that the Dec. 12 North Korean shipment reportedly landed in the military airport adjoining Bangkok's civilian airport suggests that the Thai military has previously allowed similar charters to land, Choonhavan said.

A new prime minister and military leadership have presumably yanked away the welcome mat, Choonhavan added.

The U.S. monitors North Korea through satellite and other technologies in a bid to stem proliferation of nuclear and other weapons. Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence, said in a Washington Post opinion piece in mid-December that U.S. intelligence agencies had assisted in the seizure.

"It's now up to the state attorney to decide what to do," Panitan said. "We'll base our decision on national security and the sensitivity of the issue."

mark.magnier

@latimes.com

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