BEIJING // The seizure of North Korean weapons by Thai authorities last week, based on a tip-off from the United States, is not likely to derail the just-launched direct negotiations between the US and North Korea, analysts said. But the timing of the seizure raised fresh questions about the role of the US government, especially on internal disputes in the Obama administration on dealing with North Korea.
On Friday, marking the first public comments by the White House on the destination of the arms, which consisted of 35 tonnes of missile parts, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons, Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, said in a comment piece in The Washington Post that "teamwork among different agencies in the United States and partners abroad just last week led to the interception of a Middle East-bound cargo of North Korean weapons".
Mr Blair's comment was also the first official confirmation on the US role in the case. He did not name the specific Middle East country to which the weapons were supposed to be delivered. The chartered aeroplane, the owner of which appears to be Georgian but has in the past been identified in previous trafficking cases under different owners, departed from North Korea and was intercepted in Bangkok where it stopped for refuelling.
Japanese media outlets said the plane was then scheduled to head to the Gulf, before returning to Europe. "I suspect the loaded weapons were likely to go to Yemen," said Ken Jimbo, a security analyst with Keio University in Tokyo, citing the country as having a history of arms trade with North Korea. He added that yesterday the Japanese Sankei newspaper reported that the final destination was Iran, citing Thai officials.
North Korea maintains arms trade relationships with several Middle Eastern and African countries, such as Somalia. According to Mr Jimbo, an estimated US$1 billion (Dh3.7bn) in arms deals is carried out annually between North Korea and countries in the Middle East and Africa. The timing of the North Korean arms seizure is raising fresh questions about the attitude of the US government in its dealings with North Korea. For observers of the long-time, chequered talks over North Korea's nuclear programme, it was déjà vu.
In 2007, the major tension-thawing agreement made between North Korea and the United States stalled only one month later when the United States accused a Macao-based bank that had ties with North Korea of engaging in money laundering and distributing fake US dollars manufactured by the government of North Korea. The United States pressured the bank, Banco Delta Asia, to freeze the North Korean account. The significant pact, in which North Korea agreed to take steps towards denuclearisation, was halted.
The reports on North Korea's manufacturing of counterfeit US money created a negative public opinion in the United States, cornering the group within the US administration, led by the then-secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, that advocated engagement with North Korea. Hardliners led by the vice president, Dick Cheney, used the treasury department's investigation into North Korea's suspicious financial transactions to sabotage the fledgling tension-thawing movement with North Korea.
There are similarities this time. The announcement of the seizure of North Korean weapons came within a week of a visit to Pyongyang by Stephen Bosworth, Mr Obama's point man on North Korea and just when renewed hopes for new talks over the North Korean nuclear programme were taking shape. Again, the US government was behind the interdiction effort. North Korea watchers attributed the timing to chance.
"I think we have a coincidence here," said Leon Sigal, the director of the Northeast Asia Co-operative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York. "North Koreans happened to deliver something that happened to be timed with Bosworth's visit to Pyongyang. I don't think there was anything deliberate on either side, designed to show something in the context of the talks. Unlike the George W Bush administration, the Obama team is unified in its strategy of dealing with North Korea."
The Thai seizure of the North's arms was to enforce United Nations Resolution 1874, passed in June after North Korean missile and nuclear tests. "I would hope that none of the parties treat this as something designed to get in the way of the negotiations," Mr Sigal said. Despite the setback, observers believe that both the United States and North Korea will continue to play through the talks in which the North continues to complain about the sanctions and Washington will continue to apply UN-mandated sanctions.
"The US has designed the two-track strategy just for this very reason," said a Chinese analyst on North Korea who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his affiliation with a government security think tank. "The one track is to continue to engage in North Korea through talks. The other track is to apply sanctions." Mr Jimbo in Tokyo said: "The arms deal episode is incidental, not deliberate."