An American destroyer tailed a North Korean ship Tuesday as it sailed along China's coast, U.S. officials said, amid concerns the vessel is carrying illicit arms destined for Myanmar.
The sailing sets up the first test of a new U.N. Security Council resolution that authorizes member states to inspect North Korean vessels suspected of carrying banned weapons or materials. The sanctions are punishment for an underground nuclear test the North carried out last month in defiance of past resolutions.
A U.S. official said last week that the American destroyer has no orders to intercept the ship, but experts say the vessel will need to stop to refuel soon. The resolution prohibits member states from providing such services to ships accused of bearing banned goods.
Nearby Singapore — the world's largest refueling hub — says it will "act appropriately" if the ship docks at its port with suspicious goods on board.
The North Korean-flagged Kang Nam left the port of Nampo last Wednesday, with the U.S. destroyer following it. Two Pentagon officials described a relay operation in which the destroyer USS John S. McCain would hand over surveillance of the ship to the destroyer USS McCampbell. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence.
Newspaper reports possibility of war
The North has said it would consider any interception "an act of war," and an editorial Tuesday in its main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said the Korean peninsula was on the brink of a nuclear war.
"A grave situation is being forged in the Korean peninsula where a nuclear war could happen with any accidental factor due to the sanctions," said the editorial carried on the government-run Uriminzokkiri Web site.
But an armed skirmish is unlikely, analysts say, though the North Korean crew may have rifles.
"A cargo ship can't confront a warship," said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
In the event that the American destroyer does ask to inspect the Kang Nam and North Korea refuses, the U.N. resolution states the ship must be directed to a port of Pyongyang's choosing. It was not clear which port the ship would be taken to, though on Tuesday one of the Pentagon officials said it was about 100 miles north of the Taiwan Strait — close to both the Chinese and Taiwanese coasts.
It's not clear exactly what the Kang Nam has on board, but it has transported illicit goods in the past. A South Korean intelligence official said Monday that his agency believes the North Korean ship is carrying small weapons. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing the sensitive nature of the information, said he could provide no further details.
In 2007, the ship — now registered to Kumrung Trading Co. Ltd. of Pyongyang — was similarly accused by Western diplomats of transporting weapons illegally to Myanmar. At the time, however, Myanmar authorities said they found no suspicious cargo on board.
Ship possibly heading to Myanmar
The Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence, said the chief suspicion is that the ship is headed to Myanmar.
The North is believed to have sold guns, artillery and other small weapons to Myanmar in the past. The Southeast Asian nation is the target of U.S. and EU arms embargoes because of its poor human rights record and failure to hand power to a democratically elected government. There are concerns it could use small arms in the counterinsurgency campaigns it conducts against ethnic minorities.
The Kang Nam is expected to dock at Myanmar's Thilawa port, some 20 miles south of Yangon, in the next few days, said the Irrawaddy, an online magazine operated by independent exiled journalists from Myanmar, citing an unidentified port official.
A shipping expert said a vessel the size of the Kang Nam would need to refuel in Singapore if it wants to travel the 4,100 miles between Nampo and Myanmar.
The journey from Nanpo to Singapore should take about nine days, and another four days after refueling to reach Myanmar, the official from Sinokor Merchant Marine Co. in Seoul said Tuesday. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he wasn't authorized to discuss shipping routes from North Korea.
Singapore plans to 'act appropriately'
Singapore, the world's busiest port and a top refueling center, is also North Korea's second-largest trading partner after China, said Hong Hyun-ik, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank in South Korea.
But the city state insisted its officials would "act appropriately" if asked to confront a North Korean ship believed to be carrying banned cargo.
Yoon Duk-min, a professor at the state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul, predicted North Korea would allow an inspection in Singapore.
At most, Singapore may refuse to let the ship refuel, Hong said. He also speculated that the Kang Nam may not have banned cargo on board, knowing the ship could be subject to scrutiny.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China will "strictly observe" and implement the resolution. He urged other nations to also heed the U.N. guidelines requiring "reasonable grounds" to request an inspection.
"Under the current circumstances, we call upon all parties to refrain from acts that might escalate the tension," he said Tuesday.
U.S. sends Flournoy to Tokyo, Seoul
Meanwhile, the U.S. and North Korea's neighbors were discussing how to deal with the increasingly defiant country amid signs it may be preparing a long-range missile test.
In Beijing, U.S. and Chinese defense officials were holding their first high-level bilateral military talks in 18 months. U.S. Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy was to head later in the week to Tokyo and Seoul.
Washington's top military commander in South Korea, meanwhile, warned that the communist regime is bolstering its guerrilla warfare capacity.
Gen. Walter Sharp, who commands the 28,500 U.S. troops positioned in South Korea, said the North could employ roadside bombs and other guerrilla tactics if war breaks out again on the Korean peninsula. The two Koreas technically remain at war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.