Why the U.S. Secretly Intercepted a North Korean Vessel

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The New York Times claims the U.S. managed to turn around a North Korean ship, allegedly bound for Burma carrying weapons parts used to make missiles. The article, quoting anonymous American diplomats present at a meeting in Washington with dignitaries from a number of Southeast Asian governments, details how the American warship U.S.S. McCampbell tracked the M/V Light, a North Korean cargo vessel, in late May. Confronted in waters near the Chinese city of Shanghai, the M/V Light refused U.S. requests to board but eventually turned around, following what U.S. officials say amounted to concerted backchannel pressure from other governments in the region. Gary Saymore, the White House’s top adviser on nuclear weapons, said the move was “definitely a win.”

Under a Security Council resolution over fears of nuclear proliferation, U.N. member states are mandated to check North Korean ships for illicit weapons or contraband smuggling. Of course, given the isolation and paranoia that makes up the bedrock in Pyongyang, it’s often hard to tell what any given North Korean ship’s provenance and destination is — the M/V Light, for example, was flagged in Belize. The intercept of a North Korean cargo ship voyaging to Burma is the second in so many years. In 2009, persistent hounding by the U.S.S. McCain compelled the Kang Nam 1 to turn around from its suspected mission to provide equipment to Burma’s junta.

Of course, the intercepts raise the longstanding question over the apparent friendship between North Korea and Burma, two of the world’s most embittered and isolated regimes. In 2009, amid news then of the American pursuit of the North Korean Kang Nam 1, I looked into the Burmese-North Korean relationship. An excerpt after the jump:

North Korean links with Burma range far beyond small firearms — indeed, ties between the two outcast nations are literally deep. North Korean engineers reportedly aided the Burma’s junta in building a vast series of 600 to 800 tunnel complexes and underground facilities, particularly beneath the junta’s secretive new capital of Naypyidaw. Photographs leaked earlier this month to YaleGlobal, an international affairs website, show North Korean technicians milling around guest houses in the capital. Others published by the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma, an anti-government television channel, detail the extent of some of these complexes, which have independent power supplies, built-in ventilation systems, and are reportedly large enough to allow large vehicles to drive through them. The projects have been nicknamed “tortoise shells” by the government — the often brutally repressive regime intends to use North Korea’s subterranean savvy to man a network of underground command centers, linked with fiber-optic cable, that can rule Burma in times of emergency and quash any civilian uprising.