For more than a week, the USS John S. McCain has been shadowing a North Korean merchant vessel, believed to be carrying illegal weapons.
Now that ship--the Kang Nam--appears to be heading back home. As the AP reports:
U.S. officials said Tuesday that a North Korean ship has turned around and is headed back toward the north where it came from, after being tracked for more than a week by American Navy vessels on suspicion of carrying illegal weapons.
The move keeps the U.S. and the rest of the international community guessing: Where is the Kang Nam going? Does its cargo include materials banned by a new U.N. anti-proliferation resolution?
Originally, the North Korean cargo vessel was believed enroute to Myanmar, carrying a load of missile parts. The two rogue nations have drawn closer in recent years, although Myanmar has little need for ballistic missiles. However, various intelligence agencies and anti-proliferation groups have reported that Pyongyang has been attempting to sell missiles to the Myanmar regime since 2005.
There is also the possibility that Myanmar was merely a trans-shipment point, but those reports are also unconfirmed. With U.S. naval vessels trailing the Kang Nam--and hints that we might board and search the vessel--North Korea decided to recall the ship and its cargo.
Still, no one can actually be sure the the Kang Nam is heading back to the DPRK. In the past, North Korean ships involved in illicit activities (most notably, drug running) have operated from Chinese coastal waters. Under that scenario, the vessel would rendez-vous with another ship and transfer the cargo.
However, given the constant surveillance of the Kang Nam, accomplishing that transfer would be difficult, if not impossible. It's also unlikely that Beijing would want to be associated with that activity, particularly as U.S. envoys press China to put more pressure on Pyongyang.
The most likely scenario? In a few days, the Kang Nam slips back into port at Nampo, and the cargo is unloaded. Then, it's shipped to Sunan Airfield, near Pyongyang, and loaded onto an IL-76 transport, which flies the cargo to the customer.
As we noted almost three years ago, North Korea has long used airlift to move high-value cargo to its most important clients, including Iran. And that illustrates a rather serious "hole" in current efforts to contain Pyongyang. While the U.S. (and other naval powers) are actively tracking DPRK maritime shipments, there is no comparable effort for air transfers.
In some cases, those shipments would be almost impossible to stop. With a lighter load, an IL-76 can fly non-stop from North Korea to Iran. However, those flights do require direct routing (through Chinese or Russian airspace). Without it, North Korea or Iranian airlifters would be forced to make refueling stops, providing an opportunity for the U.S. to lobby for third-party inspections, or deny access to the airfields.
As with other attempts to pressure Pyongyang, China would be a key player in eliminating the air option. But (apparently) there are limits to Beijing's cooperation. Intelligence reports indicate that North Korean IL-76s sometimes use Chinese airfields during flights to the Middle East. Without more assistance from the PRC, North Korea's "air bridge" will remain open, and Kim Jong-il will retain a critical option for shipping missile and WMD cargoes to his customers.