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Showdown on Pacific: U.S. tracking North ship

June 20,2009
U.S. Navy yesterday was tracking a North Korean cargo vessel, the Kang Nam I, shown here in an Oct. 24, 2006 file photo, suspected of carrying weapons materials. [AP]

As the Obama administration tries to ensure that the latest United Nations Security Council resolution is enforced, the U.S. Navy yesterday was tracking a North Korean vessel suspected of carrying weapons materials, U.S. government officials said.

While Fox News reported that the ship called the Kang Nam left a North Korean port Wednesday and appeared to be heading toward Singapore, CNN said the ship was in the Pacific. Fox and CNN both reported that the ship, which could be carrying missile parts or nuclear materials, flew the North Korean flag. A senior official told Fox News, “It is believed to be ‘of interest.’”

Fox and CNN also said, citing officials, that the Kang Nam is “a repeat offender.” It was reportedly detained in October 2006 by Hong Kong authorities after North Korea’s first nuclear test.

The Kang Nam is the first North Korean ship to be identified as suspect since the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1874 last week which “calls upon” member nations to inspect cargo to and from North Korea suspected of containing restricted materials.

Member states could also inspect vessels on the high seas with the consent of the flag nation. Without such consent, the ship must be directed to an “appropriate and convenient” port for the required inspection. Materials may be seized and disposed of if necessary, but the resolution doesn’t authorize the use of military force.

Citing unnamed sources, Fox News reported that the U.S. military would likely follow the vessel until it pulls into a port to refuel. The U.S. could then request that the host country not supply fuel. The latest UN Security Council resolution orders members not to provide fuel or other supplies to suspect North Korean ships “if they have information that provides reasonable grounds to believe” the ships are carrying banned items.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, didn’t mention specifics when asked about the Kang Nam. “I wouldn’t go into any kind of details at this particular point in time, except to say that it’s very clear that the resolution prohibits North Korea from shipping these kinds of materials ... from conventional weapons up to fissile material or nuclear weapons,” Mullen said.

Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that the U.S. government would order its Navy to request permission to inspect North Korean vessels suspected of carrying arms or nuclear technology.

North Korea has threatened to take “a merciless military strike” against efforts to stop its ships.

Mullen insisted that the U.S. or other navies would not board a ship without permission.

“The United Nations Security Council resolution does not include an option for opposed-boarding or noncompliant boarding with respect to that,” he said. “We expect compliance.”

Aside from shipment of weapons materials, the Obama administration was also concerned about possible North Korean missile launches. Japanese media reported that Pyongyang would fire missiles toward Hawaii around the Fourth of July.

To that, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the United States is ready to defend itself.

“Without telegraphing what we will do, I would just say we are in a good position, should it become necessary, to protect American territory.”

Gates added anti-missile weaponry, including advanced radar and ground-based defensive tools capable of intercepting ballistic missiles, had been redeployed to Hawaii as a precaution.

In another step to ensure enforcement of the UN resolution, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network at the Treasury Department yesterday warned American financial institutions of possible “deceptive practices” by North Korea to circumvent sanctions.

“All financial institutions should remain vigilant regarding attempts by North Korean customers to make large cash deposits into new or existing accounts, as well as the associated risk of the passing of counterfeit currency,” the department said.

The Treasury Department also said it is concerned about North Korean production and distribution of high-quality counterfeit $100 bills, also known as “supernotes.” Deceptive practices by North Korea may include hiding the identity and location of parties originating a banking transaction, transferring funds through a third party and repeated bank transfers with “no legitimate purpose.”

Resolution 1874 prevents the provision of financial services that could contribute to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and prevents the North from accessing financial services to help transactions tied to weapons-related activities.


By Yoo Jee-ho [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]



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