06 July 2009

North Korean weapons ship heads home

By Jack Kim

(News.com.au) -A NORTH Korean ship tracked by the US Navy on suspicion of carrying a banned arms cargo is expected to return home after a voyage that tested UN sanctions aimed at punishing Pyongyang for its May nuclear test.

The ship's return may decrease tensions that were raised after North Korea fired seven ballistic missiles on Saturday in an act of defiance towards the US on its Independence Day.

The ageing cargo ship Kang Nam, which set sail in mid June, was headed back to North Korea and is expected to arrive on Monday, South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae said.

Local dailies said it was headed for the North's port of Nampo after a journey that took it close to Singapore and Myanmar.

A US envoy coordinating the enforcement of UN sanctions on the North is in Malaysia for talks with officials on possibly shutting down bank accounts used by the North for its illicit trade deals, reports in South Korean dailies said.

"The Obama administration has uncovered suspicious North Korean bank accounts in Malaysia," the Joongang Ilbo newspaper quoted a diplomatic source in Washington as saying.

A Malaysian official described the visit by US Ambassador Philip Goldberg as "routine".

Mr Goldberg last week discussed enforcing sanctions with China, the North's biggest benefactor whose participation is essential for the punishment to take effect.

The UN sanctions imposed after the North's nuclear test were aimed at halting its arms trade, which is a vital source of foreign currency for the cash-short state. They also called on states to clamp down on the North's suspected arms shipments.

Missle tests and sanctions

US Vice President Joseph Biden dismissed North Korea's recent missile launches as predictable and said in a TV interview aired on Sunday it was part of "attention-seeking" behaviour by the reclusive state.

Analysts said the missile test may be related to the UN sanctions because the North wants to show its customers, who face greater risks in purchasing missiles, that its products are reliable and accurate.

"North Korea has been making profits through arms trading and this could also have been a test to measure their force," Dongguk University professor Koh Yu-hwan said.

"They want to test their performance on how much they have developed in the past months."

North Korea appears to have launched five Scud missiles, which could hit anywhere in South Korea, and two mid-range Rodong missiles, that could strike most of Japan, in the salvo fired on Saturday, South Korean officials told reporters.

The missiles flew as far as 420 km and displayed greater precision than previously shown, one official said.

Defence Ministry spokesman Won said the North had "greatly improved" the accuracy of its missiles.

A senior South Korean official quoted by the Dong-A Ilbo daily said: "They showed the North is capable of dealing a serious blow to military command centres, airfields and major government installations throughout the South."

"The level of threat is of an entirely different scale when compared to previous launches of surface-to-ship and surface-to-air missiles."

The Scud and Rodong are ballistic missiles. Their launch would mark an escalation by the North, which has fired several non-ballistic, short-range missile since the May 25 nuclear test.

North Korea is barred by UN resolutions from firing ballistic missiles.

It has more than 600 Scud type missiles and 300 Rodong missiles which have been deployed and target US allies South Korea and Japan, defence officials have said.