South Africa has told a UN Security Council committee it intercepted a North Korean weapons shipment bound for Central Africa, which diplomats said was a violation of a UN ban on arms sales by Pyongyang.
The seizure took place in November, when South African authorities received information that a ship headed for Congo Republic was carrying containers with suspicious cargo, according to a letter sent by South Africa to the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions committee.
Several Western diplomats described the incident as a “clear-cut violation” of Security Council resolution 1874, which bans all North Korean arms exports and most weapons-related imports in response to its nuclear program.
The letter, parts of which were seen by Reuters yesterday, said a North Korean company was the shipping agent and the cargo was first loaded onto a ship in China, then transferred to a vessel owned by French shipping firm CMA CGM in Malaysia.
Diplomats said the French company alerted authorities to the fact it had suspicious cargo on board and was not believed to have done anything wrong. The South Africans intercepted the vessel and seized the containers, which held tank parts.
The letter, which the committee received last week, said the South Africans discovered “that the contents fell within the definition of conventional arms in that the contents consisted of components of a military tank T-54/T-55.”
The letter said the documentation for the containers described the cargo as “spare parts of bulldozer.” T-54 and T-55 tanks were designed and produced in the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s but were later upgraded and made in other countries.
Neither the French company nor the countries involved had any immediate comment.
Congo Republic, which borders Democratic Republic of Congo, has suffered a wave of violence in the Pool region between the capital Brazzaville and the oil port town of Pointe Noire that has broken a period of calm after a decade of instability.
Committee to decide
The diplomats said the committee was planning to send letters to countries involved in the case such as North Korea, Republic of Congo, Malaysia and France seeking more information so it can decide whether the North Koreans or any other nations were in breach of UN sanctions.
Resolution 1874, approved in June 2009, was passed in response to Pyongyang’s second nuclear test in May 2009 and expanded the punitive measures the Security Council had imposed on North Korea after its first atomic test in October 2006.
Last year’s resolution also authorized countries to inspect suspicious North Korean air, land and sea cargo and to seize any banned goods.
“The latest incident shows that the sanctions are working,” one Western diplomat told Reuters. “But it also shows that we have to be vigilant. The DPRK (North Korea) is still trying to violate the sanctions.”
This is not the only seizure of its kind. Thai authorities confiscated over 35 tons of arms from a cargo plane they said had come from North Korea after the aircraft made an emergency landing at a Bangkok airport in December 2009.
Last’s year’s expanded sanctions against North Korea were aimed at cutting off its arms sales, a vital export estimated to earn the destitute state more than $1 billion a year.
North Korea’s biggest weapons sales come from ballistic missiles, with Iran and other Middle Eastern states as customers, according to US government officials.
The UN sanctions and the cut-off of handouts from South Korea have dealt a heavy blow to the North, which has an estimated gross domestic product of $17 billion, and may force it back to nuclear disarmament talks in the hopes of winning aid, analysts say.
Pic: T59 tank