December 27, 2009

One Way World

A North Korean arms shipment is never simple, even though the Russian-made Ilyushin Il-76 transporter that landed at Don Mueang Airport in Thailand appeared to be so at first. Thai security forces raided the plane as it refueled after US intelligence tipped off the cargo: 35 tons of arms and ammunition concealed in 12 crates.

Thai spokesman Panithan Wattanayakorn said an investigation found "missiles, explosives and tubes,” while Lt Gen Thangai Prasajaksattru, commander of the Central Investigation Bureau, listed the cargo as “rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and other war weapons.”

Apparently they weren’t carefully hidden. The Bangkok Post reported, “customs and immigration authorities found suspicious packages in tightly-sealed wood and metal crates.”

Rapid reaction pointed to an arms deal between North Korea and Iran, unsurprising but disturbing as the international community is trying to isolate the two states. According to the initial flight plan, “the aircraft was chartered by Hong Kong-based Union Top Management Ltd. to fly oil industry spare parts from Pyongyang to Tehran, Iran, with over nine other stops including Bangkok, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.”

Iran protested immediately and pleaded ignorance, saying its industry is capable of producing all arms in question. That Iran could pass these weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas is more plausible, but again, why not use its own arms? Maybe Tehran is short a shipment to, if the rumors are true, Houthi rebels in Yemen, or maybe Kim Jong II cooked up something new.

Then another flight plan surfaced during Thailand’s investigation alleging that the plane was destined for Colombo, Sri Lanka, not stopping to refuel there. The five jailed crew members verified that final destination and insisted they had no idea of their cargo. They then claimed Ukraine was their destination.

Denial is a standard tactic, but considering the shady underbelly of private contracting. especially private-contracted arms smuggling, it would be unwise to write them off entirely. The plane does has murky ties to Victor Bout, an international arms smuggler.

Sri Lanka denied any knowledge of the weapons, and while militarily inferior to Iran, it probably doesn’t need them either. China is a better supplier. Yet Colombo as a destination provokes a valid hypothetical if only because it's likely to be hushed.

UN Resolution 1874, signed in June to further restrict North Korea arms dealing, was meant to embarrass other rogue states too. Iran, Myanmar, or even Eastern Europe - but not Sri Lanka, a US trade and arms partner already under fire for human rights abuses during its military victory over the Tamil Tigers.

Forget where the weapons were going, that's what they want us to focus on away from the crack in Resolution 1874.

North Korea is a convicted felon who’s lost its privileges, which makes perfect sense. But what if the parole officer, prison, and justice system are guilty of similar offenses? America, Canada, France, Russia, and China have proliferated nuclear technology in the past, a core dispute shared by those outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

UN Security Council members are also guilty, directly or indirectly, of past and present human rights abuses. Western (US, UK, France, Germany) and Asian (Russia, China, India) states legally deal weapons into Lebanon, Gaza, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Zimbabwe, and Sri Lanka, just to name a few, where the victims are often civilian. Many consider the Iraq war illegal, private military contractors and services are set to dominate this century.

What's so out of the ordinary about North Korea's arms trading again?

Power is simply a one way street, so too is the flow of arms. Western and Asian pipelines won't be closing anytime soon, but only North Korea is punished. A fall guy more like it. Leaving the West's hypocrisy aside, how long before America, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea develop a real solution to disarm North Korea’s nuclear program, resurrect its people, and restore regional confidence?

Arms embargoes are quick fixes and America can't keep playing cops and robbers forever. US diplomats should be working harder than US intelligence agents to crack the code. Antagonizing as Kim Jong II is, a political/economic accord is the only viable long-term solution for the region.

Unless you count nuclear war as an option. We're sure US officials do.

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