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Mystery Plane Carries North Korean Holiday Cheer
by James Dunnigan
January 1, 2010

On December 11th, the U.S. alerted Thailand that a Georgian Il-76 transport, flying from North Korea, to refuel in Thailand, had false documentation, and other problems worth looking into. When the transport arrived, and Thai police checked, they found that the manifest listed the cargo as oil drilling machinery, but the stuff was actually 30 tons of weapons. The crew was arrested, for carrying weapons, and false documents, and the cargo was removed to a safe location.

At first, the crew refused to say what their final destination once. After extensive interrogation, one crew member said the destination was Ukraine. That made no sense. Neither did what the Thai police reported about the cargo. They said it was missiles (that would make sense, if they were high end stuff) and RPG rockets (that would not make sense, because this is cheap stuff). While the Il-76 can carry fifty tons of cargo, air freight  is over a hundred times more expensive that shipping by sea. Which is how North Korea normally smuggles out arms shipments. This air shipment was also avoiding as many countries as possible (flying over international water most of the way from North Korea).

The only reason such cheap weapons are flown by air is when you want to deliver them to criminals (or warlords/rebels in some strife torn part of the world) who are not based near the sea. In any event, North Korea has been busted once more for smuggling weapons, and more interesting details will no doubt emerge from this operation..

A recent UN investigation concluded that North Korea was continuing to export weapons, and using the hard currency obtained to import luxury items for the ruling elite of the communist police state. The UN report detailed North Korean use of false documents and the switching of cargo containers to different ships to throw off investigators.

The North Koreans have also had to come up with a large array of subterfuges to get around growing restrictions on their use of the international banking system. The North Koreans are still getting the weapons out, and the money back. But they are increasingly getting caught. It's an international game of hide and seek that is hurting the North Korean arms trade, but not stopping it. The report points towards implementing more restrictions on North Korean trade. To be really effective, this requires lots of cooperation from China, where many of the North Korean evasion takes place. For example, North Korean ships go to Chinese ports, where arms cargos (usually in standard shipping containers) are secretly switched to other ships.

In the past, private gunrunners have been known to use Russian made, Cold War surplus, air transports to carry weapons to customers in Africa. The Air Traffic Control in Africa is spotty, and local officials respond well to bribes. Most of those private gunrunners have been put out of business, or retired before they got caught. But North Korea is still in business. The Il-76 grounded by the Thais was recently sold by a Kazakh firm to another in Georgia. The crew consisted of four Kazakhs and one Belorussian.

This story isn't over yet, but its direction seems pretty clear.

 


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