Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Where were the North Korean weapons headed?

You'll remember that Thai authorities seized a plane and its cargo on December 12. The reason: its cargo, 35 tons of weapons, came from North Korea, which is under an arms embargo. The flight manifest had all sorts of documents that said the cargo was oil-drilling equipment. The plane, an IL-76, was registered in Georgia and its crew was from Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Since then, there have been a lot of questions: Where was the plane headed? Did Victor Bout have anything to do with it (the crew has been jailed in the same prison as Bout who was convicted in a Thai court a few months ago and is fighting extradition to the US)? How does this type of trafficking actually work? What made the Thai authorities decide to search that plane (rather than others)?

Well, yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the weapons were destined for Iran. Today, the Washington Post reported that Thai officials had denied that report and instead announced the plane was headed for Sri Lanka.

As the Post reports:
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.
Why does this matter? Because while we know a lot about weapons trafficking, we still need to learn more about how countries like North Korea and Iran trade weapons, the routes they use, the companies that agree to help (and for how much), and which other commodities are involved in the trade. Another thing that matters: this shows that sanctions can, in fact, work. So that's something we need to learn from as well: what made the Thai authorities suspicious, how did they deal with it, how is their legal system dealing with this issue, what are possible challenges to prosecution, should we be going after flight crews or the people who commission them?


  1. According to the CS Monitor, the Thai authorities acted on a tip from the US.

  2. Thanks MK--I think that raises another question, how do you make such information sharing more systematic?

  3. Expand the Proliferation Security Initiative? ; )