A North Korean ship, thought to be carrying missile components or other weapons to Burma, has been intercepted by the U.S. navy and forced to sail back home, U.S. officials said Monday.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner, confirming reports of the incident during a press briefing, said the action to stop the shipment was taken after close consultations with Asian nations aimed at checking any weapons-proliferation activities by nuclear-armed North Korea.
The cargo ship, identified as the M/V Light and registered in Belize, was intercepted off the southern coast of the Chinese city of Shanghai by the U.S. destroyer McCampbell on May 26 after being monitored for several days, The New York Times reported.
“Given its track record, North Korea bears responsibility to be fully transparent about shipments that may provide grounds for concern and to demonstrate that it is not transferring items prohibited by U.N. Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874,” Toner said.
North Korea is subject to international and United Nations sanctions designed to curb its missile and nuclear programs.
The two resolutions were adopted in the aftermath of North Korea’s 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests and authorize U.N. member states to intercept weapon shipments.
Toner said the U.S. Navy received authorization from Belize, the flag state of the North Korean ship, to inspect the ship’s cargo, but was denied permission to do so by the ship’s captain.
The New York Times quoted unnamed U.S. officials who said that permission to conduct an inspection was denied four times. The officials said that a few days later, the ship stopped and returned to North Korea under the watch of U.S. surveillance planes and satellites.
“We consulted closely with states in the region on our shared responsibilities to prevent this shipment. We talked directly with the North Koreans to stress the importance of not engaging in proliferation-related transfers,” Toner said.
“The ship’s master refusing us permission to board it, as well as the fact that it turned around and headed back to North Korea, speaks to some of our concerns about its cargo.”
Earlier on Monday, Gary Samore, special assistant to U.S. President Barack Obama on weapons of mass destruction, said the M/V Light may have been bound for Burma with small arms or missile-related materials in comments made to The New York Times and South Korean media.
"We talked directly to the North Koreans. We talked directly to all the Southeast Asian countries including Myanmar [Burma], urging them to inspect the ship if it called into their port," Samore told the South Korean Yonhap news agency.
"The U.S. Navy also contacted the North Korean ship as it was sailing, to ask them where they were going and what cargo they were carrying."
He said pressure from the international community drove North Korea to withdraw its ship.
"This is a good example that shows that international cooperation and coordination can block the North's weapon exports."
U.S. officials have frequently expressed concern over reports that North Korea is seeking to increase military ties with Burma.
In 2009, U.S. officials tracked another North Korean ship, the Kang Nam I, suspected of heading toward Burma with illicit weapons on board in violation of U.N. sanctions. The ship eventually turned around and returned to North Korea.
Shortly afterward, a report believed to have been drafted by Burmese authorities leaked details of a secret visit to North Korea in 2008 by Burma's top brass, during which the two sides pledged to significantly expand cooperation in military training and arms production.
In May, Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Joseph Yun expressed his concerns about Burma’s increased ties with North Korea to officials in Burma’s new military-backed government.
A top Burmese official told U.S. Senator John McCain during his visit earlier this month that his country is not wealthy enough to acquire nuclear weapons.
Reported by RFA’s Korean service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.