Thursday, November 09, 2006

An Empty Ship, a Long Way From Home

Thanks to alert reader Jack D., who found this interesting item in today's Washington Post.

The Indian Navy has detained a North Korean-flagged cargo vessel that entered its waters after "developing a snag" late last month. Indian officials have stated that the DPRK crew has not been able to explain why the ship--the MV Omrani II--was sailing between North Korea and Iran without any cargo. The crew's original explanation, that they were testing a new ship, apparently won't suffice for Indian investigators. As one official noted, with a touch of irony, that it is "strange" the North Korean crew would sail as far as Iran on a "shakedown" cruise. At last report, the DPRK vessel was still in the Indian port of Mumbai; there was no indication as to when it might be allowed to proceed.

There is some speculation that the North Korean ship and its crew could be involved in drug smuggling. As detailed in this 2003 Heritage Foundation study, Pyongyang has a long history of trafficking in illegal narcotics, as a way of supplementing its moribund economy. North Korea has used cargo vessels for drug smuggling in the past, so there's a real possibility that the MV Omrani II was heading for a pick-up, or had transferred its cargo to another vessel. If that was the case, then the Iranian "destination" was probably just a ruse, although corrupt Iranian officials frequently let drugs pass through their ports and borders, in exchange for a cut of the profits.

Another possibility is that the ship was involved in some sort of illegal arms or technology transfer. In the wake of Pyongyang's recent missile and nuclear tests, there's been increased scrutiny of DPRK cargo vessels, in hopes of preventing the transfer of missile and/or WMD technology over the high seas.

And there's plenty of reason to be suspicious. In 1999, the Indian Navy stopped another NK cargo vessel, the "Kuwolsan," carrying what inspectors described as "an entire assembly line" for SCUD missiles. The hardware (falsely listed on the ship's manifest as water refining equipment) was apparently bound for Libya. Three years later, Spanish ships (working with U.S. authorities) detained a second North Korean freighter, also carrying missile cargo. The vessel was allowed to continue on its journey when it was learned that the cargo was heading for Yemen, and not Iran.

However, the DPRK vessel involved in the latest controversy is said to be relatively small (45 meters in length), limiting the amount of cargo that could be carried, and the size of individual components. But the MV Omrani II is probably big enough to carry most types of missile hardware, including fuel tanks, engines, and even smaller airframe sections. Of course, that begs the question of where the missile cargo might be, given the fact that the DPRK vessel was empty at the time it was boarded and diverted to India. My guess--and it's only a hunch--is that the MV Ormani II was enroute to pick-up defective missile components from an Iranian port, and return them to NK for repair or replacement.

But if the Ormani was on its way to pick-up sensitive and/or high value cargo, why not dispatch one of North Korea's Russian-built IL-76 transports, similar in size and capacity to the U.S. C-141. The fact that an IL-76 wasn't used suggests (a) the cargo was too large for the aircraft; (b) the destination was beyond the unrefuled range of the "Candid," or (c) the U.S. has been successful in demanding the examination of North Korean owned and chartered transport aircraft. In other words, the cargo may have been so sensitive that Pyongyang couldn't afford a third-party inspection if the aircraft had to refuel on return to the DPRK.

Judging from the reaction of Indian authorities--and the vessel's continuing detention in Mumbai--it looks like the mystery of the MV Omrani II is far from resolved. Whatever its mission was--or might be--one thing is clear: the NK freighter wasn't on a simple "shakedown" trip to Iran.

Eaglespeak is also following this story. His blog is the definitive source for information relating to port security, piracy and other maritime topics.

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