North Korea may have tried new route to smuggle arms when plane was seized in Thailand

By Denis D. Gray, AP
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

North Korea turns to air smuggling

BANGKOK — North Korea, banned from selling arms by U.N. sanctions, may have gambled and lost when it dispatched 35 tons of weapons by air rather than by sea as it has done in the past. Authorities seized the plane, which may have been bound for Iran, during a refueling stop in Thailand.

The 11-day saga, spanning the globe from Pyongyang to Azerbaijan to the Thai capital, remains shrouded in mystery and missing pieces, including the final destination of the Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane now under Thai custody along with its five-man crew.

Among difficulties facing investigators is a fly-by-night infrastructure seemingly rigged up for the flight, including a Hong Kong-based company reportedly involved which was only incorporated Nov. 2 and whose director could not be traced there or at his address in Spain.

But experts in South Korea say one thing appears clear: North Korea is seeking new ways to bust through a U.S.-led interdiction program of its arms sales.

“They must have experienced difficulties finding ships to transport cargo because of U.N. sanctions,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies. “I believe this surely made North Korea realize that it is under great surveillance from all directions regardless of whether it’s a sea or air route, and that it won’t be easy to sell weapons.”

Another analyst, Cha Du-hyeon at the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses, said that North Korea’s attempt at the air shipment suggested that the regime was taking chances to meet a delivery deadline, as transport by sea was heavily scrutinized.

The seizure was the first known of arms sent by air. There have been several of sea borne weaponry. Analysts said the Bangkok seizure would likely deter some potential buyers of North Korean weapons.

In Bangkok, Police Col. Supisarn Police said investigators have so far found no evidence that the aircraft was bound for Iran, contradicting a report from arms trafficking experts.

Separately, the five crew members insisted their final destination was Sri Lanka and not Iran, their lawyer said after visiting the jailed men, who also say they had no idea they were carrying weapons.

Defense attorney Somsak Saithong told The Associated Press the crew also denied any knowledge of accused international weapons trafficker Victor Bout, who is in the same prison battling extradition to the United States on terrorism charges.

“They told me they don’t know Victor Bout,” Somsak said. He quoted the five men — four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus — as saying their flight plan called for a refueling stop in Bangkok before flying on to Sri Lanka. They have been charged with illegal arms possession.

But according to a flight plan seen by arms trafficking researchers, the aircraft was chartered by Hong Kong-based Union Top Management Ltd. to fly oil industry spare parts from Pyongyang to Tehran, Iran, with several other stops, including Bangkok, Colombo in Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.

Union Top was set up by a company called R & G Management Consultancy, according to a woman who answered the door at Union Top’s registered office. She said she didn’t know a man called Dario Cabreros Garmendia — who signed Union Top’s incorporation in Hong Kong on Nov. 2 — and did not know how to reach anyone at the company.

After answering several questions she asked the AP reporter to leave the office.

Garmendia listed Barcelona, Spain, as his address on another document related to the set up of the company. But AP reporters asked four people living next to the location and none had heard of him or the company.

Thai authorities, acting on a U.S. tip, impounded the Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane after uncovering 35 tons of weapons, which officials say included explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and components for surface-to-air missiles.

The U.N. imposed sanctions in June banning North Korea from exporting any arms after the communist regime conducted a nuclear test and test-fired missiles. Impoverished North Korea is believed to earn hundreds of millions of dollars every year by selling missiles, missile parts and other weapons to countries such as Iran, Syria and Myanmar.

The report on the flight plan, which cited Iran as the final destination, came from the nonprofit groups TransArms in the United States and IPIS of Belgium. It was funded by the Belgian government and Amnesty International. It could not be independently verified.

Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, denied Tehran was importing weapons from North Korea. “We are not at all after such weapons, let alone bringing in or importing from other countries,” told a press conference in Tokyo Monday.

South Korean analysts said that while the aircraft may have been heading for Iran, the weapons could actually have been earmarked for radical Middle Eastern groups like Hamas and Hezbollah which Iran has bankrolled and supplied with weapons in the past.

Kim Tae-woon, a security expert at the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses, said the weapons known to be aboard the plane — rocket-propeled grenades, explosives and components for surface-to-air missiles — were those used by insurgents, not regular armies.

“There are no insurgents in Iran, and in that sense, Iran may not be the destination,” Kim said.

Another puzzle is why the aircraft chose to risk landing in relatively well-policed Bangkok rather than taking a “safer” route. Given the aircraft’s maximum range of more than 4,000 miles (6,440 kilometers), it had a number of landing options.

The complex web of companies set up to facilitate shipments adds further stumbling blocks for investigators.

Brian Johnson-Thomas of IPIS said that “this is normal it tends to be a pattern. It is normal (for traffickers) to put in as much obfuscation as possible so that they can’t be traced backward.”

But he said that it was “somewhat strange” that the company contracted for only just one flight rather than a series of flights after going through all the trouble.

The report says the plane was registered to Air West, a cargo transport company in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Asked to comment on whether the plane was bound for Tehran, company owner Levan Kakabadze told AP he was unaware of the plane’s final destination.

Researchers say the plane’s previous registration documents link it to Air Cess and Centrafrican Airlines, which are allegedly connected to Bout, who has been in prison in Thailand since he was arrested March 6, 2008.

But the report, which was released Monday, said there was not enough evidence to link the plan definitively to Bout.

The plane, according to the researchers, was owned by Overseas Cargo FZE, based in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates where the plane also made a landing. Officials at the company did not respond to repeated requests for comment and the extent of its physical operations in Sharjah was also unclear.

In recent years, Sharjah’s international airport has become a hub of many small charter and cargo carriers serving Asia, Africa and the former Soviet republics.


Associated Press writers Deborah Seward in Paris, Aoife White in Brussels, Aida Sultanova in Baku, Azerbaijan, Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, Kelly Olsen and Jae-Soon Chang in Seoul, Min Lee in Hong Kong and Brian Murphy in United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.

will not be displayed