The capture of the North Korean weapons plane may damage a $1 Billion trade

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The capture of the North Korean weapons plane may damage a $1 Billion trade

The detention in Thailand of a cargo plane transporting weapons to Iran and the arrest of its crew may prove to be a disaster for illegal North Korean Arms industry.

According to the Wall St Journal newspaper, a flight plan for the aircraft showed that after Bangkok it was due to make refuelling stops in Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates and Ukraine before going on to Tehran where it would unload its cargo.
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The details of the flight plan are included in a joint draft report by analysts at TransArms, in Chicago, and the International Peace Information Service (IPIS) in Belgium, organisations that monitor international arms transfers, the Wall Street journal reports. The report has not been independently confirmed.

From Iran the weapons could have been passed on to militants in Lebanon or Gaza.

Thai authorities are baffled about why the plane stopped in Bangkok on the return trip since Thailand is known for close ties to the United States. A more direct route would have been over China, stopping in Lashio or Mandalay in Myanmar to refuel. Another flight from North Korea in November 2008 took this route in an attempt to take cargo to Iran that American authorities feared could be related to weapons of mass destruction. That flight was blocked when India refused to allow the plane to fly through its airspace. The Air West flight's scheduled stop in Colombo, Sri Lanka, was likely an attempt to avoid a repeat.

A search of the plane's cargo after a tip-off from US intelligence sources found 35 tonnes of crated weapons inside the fuselage, according to Thai authorities. The haul included large numbers of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), man-portable surface-to-air missiles, and two mobile multiple-rocket launchers, either M-1985 or M-1991's, capable of firing 240mm rockets. The weapons were removed by the Thai military to Takhili Air Force base in central Nakhon Sawan, north of Bangkok. Thai authorities estimated the value of the cargo at around US$18 million. The crew, who are likely to be telling the truth, said they believed they were carrying heavy equipment for oil operations.

The next step is for the weapons to be inventoried and reported to the UN's North Korea Sanctions Committee, which is mandated to investigate violations of the sanctions. Under UN resolutions, the weapons should then be destroyed, although there is some debate in Thailand about whether the weapons will be kept for its armed forces.

The aircraft allegedly has a long involvement in transporting shady cargos. According to sources in the airfreight business, planes frequently change hands and registration numbers. The IL-76 detained in Bangkok was previously owned by a private Kazakh company, East Wing, then bought by Kazakh airline Beibers, which in turn sold it on to Air West, Georgia, in October, according to the Kazakh Transportation and Communications Ministry. Air West was registered in Batumi, Georgia in 2008 and its office is in the Ukraine.

For this flight, the plane was leased out to SP Transport Limited, a Ukrainian company. New Zealand authorities are also investigating a company with the same name. Both companies have a Lu Zhang listed as their director. The New Zealand company's shares are held by VICAM (Auckland) Ltd, which in turn is owned by Vanuatu-based GT Group.

Security analysts and freight operators say this type of paper trail is par for the course. Companies are shut down after being identified as trafficking in weapons or other illicit items or violation of air safety regulations, then open under different names. Aircraft similarly change registration, or are sold on or leased to other freight companies to disguise their business.

The detention of plane and crew in Bangkok may scare off would-be customers for North Korean arms. It is the second time a large weapons shipment has been interdicted since the imposition of UN Resolution 1874, passed in response to Pyongyang's refusal to stop its uranium enrichment program and ballistic missile tests held earlier this year. The resolution bans the transfer of heavy weapons as well as missiles and spare parts from North Korea and calls on countries to "inspect and destroy" those weapons.

A North Korea-registered vessel believed to be carrying weapons for Myanmar was forced to turn back in July after that country declared it would not allow the ship to dock. United Arab Emirates authorities in August seized a Bahamian-flagged ship, the ANL-Australia, which was found to be carrying North Korean military equipment destined for Iran and listed in the ship's manifest as oil-related. India has stopped at least two more North Korean vessels in its waters waters, although neither was found to be carrying weapons.

A halt in weapons sales would be a heavy blow to cash-starved North Korea, especially combined with the cutting-off of South Korean handouts that have kept the country's economy going. Arms are one of North Korea's biggest earners of foreign currency earners.

Analysts say the regime earns more than $1 billion a year through arms sales, often to other rogue regimes or to rebel groups, many connected to gross human rights abuses. Its biggest sales are ballistic missiles to Iran and other Middle Eastern countries and possibly to Myanmar.

The seizure of the plane and crew reiterates American resolve to isolate North Korea and force it back to the negotiating table. It also shows its ability to call in favors from friends to achieve this aim. For international arms merchants and their customers it may be time to look for a different source of product.

By netchicken: posted on 22-12-2009

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