|Wary India frisks North Korean
By Sreeram Chaulia
After the international suspense thriller in June over the
movements of the North Korean cargo ship Kang Nam I
ended with the freighter beating a retreat and returning
home, an equally intriguing case has emerged off the
southern coast of India.
Another North Korean vessel, the Mu San, is currently
in the custody of Indian authorities after it dropped anchor
without permission at Hut Bay, the entry point to India's
Andaman and Nicobar Islands on August 6.
If the case of Kang Nam I was curious, the Mu San
has its own mysteries that are deepening by the day. When
the ship first approached Andaman and Nicobar, India's Coast
Guards sent an aircraft overhead to communicate, but the
North Koreans refused to respond.
A Coast Guard ship then tailed it and found that the 39
North Korean sailors on board were unwilling to halt. On
being approached, the Mu San attempted to escape and
Indian authorities fired in the air. After a tense six-hour
chase, the ship finally "obeyed" and was dragged to the
nearby city of Port Blair for inspection.
According to the captured sailors, the ship was carrying
16,500 tons of sugar bound for Iraq - a fact confirmed by
searching its contents. One theory being bandied about is
that the craft decided to dock in India for purely
commercial reasons after learning that New
Delhi had just announced zero import
duties on sugar, a commodity that has fallen short this year
due to a failed crop.
Sugar as merchandise on the high seas is a seemingly
innocuous mission, except that the ship's crew frequently
changed their versions when interrogated.
The claim that they came to make a quick killing on eased
tariffs did not dovetail with the other assertion of the
ship's captain that they changed direction towards the
Andaman Islands because of "mechanical failure". Moreover,
the other stops the vessel made along the way were erratic
Indian officials have learned that the Mu San docked
Singapore without following the routine
passport stamping procedure. Investigators
also say that the same ship had in the past "made several
voyages between North Korea and
China without maintaining proper records".
As North Korea's nuclear program - which is now a matter of
global concern and subject to United Nations sanctions - has
been a beneficiary of Chinese technology and materiel
transfer, India's military and civilian intelligence
agencies rushed to the site where the Mu San is being
As with the Kang Nam I, the proliferation potential
of the Mu San had to be thoroughly checked by India
owing to obligations under UN Security Council Resolution
1874, which encourages member states to search North Korean
cargo on land, sea and air for fissile substances or related
When the detention of the Mu San was publicized, US
ambassador Philip Goldberg, the coordinator for implementing
Resolution 1874, said in Washington that the Indians "might
have acted under international law or their own domestic
The ambiguity stems from
Delhi's own reticence about being openly
seen as participating in a US-driven agenda to beef up the
sanctions regime against Pyongyang after it conducted its
second nuclear test in May.
When North Korea triggered its latest nuclear explosion this
year, India condemned it as "unfortunate" and "a development
of serious concern". Yet, New Delhi has had
reservations about participating in
previous American-led ventures to actively intercept and
inspect ships of "rogue states" that could be ferrying
nuclear parts or designs.
When the George W Bush administration launched the
multi-national Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) in
2003 to interdict third-country ships for suspected nuclear
material, India opted out, even though some 90 states signed
on. New Delhi was worried that joining the PSI would raise
questions about the international legality of the proposed
strong-arm actions and also that it might oblige India to
open its own nuclear facilities to comprehensive safeguards
inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Although the PSI was primarily aimed at pre-empting the
North Korean model of nuclear and missile component
smuggling using civilian ships as covers, India was
concerned that the phrase "states of proliferation concern"
could one day be turned against it.
Given the continued tug-of-war between American
non-proliferation lobbies and India over the privileges and
conditions of the civilian nuclear deal inked last year, New
Delhi has again not shown any overt enthusiasm for muscular
non-proliferation approaches outlined in Resolution 1874.
All that the Indian side will admit presently is that the
Mu San will be booked under the Indian Maritime Act for
illegal trespassing. While it is difficult to decode whether
India has finally overcome its reservations to PSI-like
coalitions and entered a similar arrangement with the US
through the backdoor via the Mu San, the China factor
features uppermost in New Delhi's approach to North Korea's
sanctions-busting oceanic nuclear commerce.
Indian strategists have been ringing alarm bells at China's
maritime reconnaissance and intelligence station on the Coco
Islands, which were leased by
Myanmar in the early 1990s. These Islands
are an ideal location for China to monitor Indian naval and
missile launch facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
as well as the Indian Navy's maneuvers throughout the
eastern Indian Ocean.
The fact that the Mu San, with a history of traveling
back and forth to China, approached the strategically
sensitive Andaman Islands is an angle that India's external
intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW),
will necessarily probe.
Apart from China, India also has memories of North Korean
ships transferring missile and nuclear parts to Pakistan and
Iran. The clandestine network of disgraced Pakistani nuclear
scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who ran an extended "nuclear
Wal-Mart", treated North Korea as a lynchpin. In 1999, India
actually seized a cache of North Korean missile fragments
headed for Pakistan when the ship docked at a port on
India's western coast.
After thorough frisking, the Mu San has been cleared
of any weapons of mass destruction, but India's naval
sentinels are still puzzled why one of its detained crew
members was a North Korean government agent. Why should a
merchant navy ship have on board a state official? The
answers are hard to come by, as only one of the North Korean
sailors is said to be conversant in English.
Unlike the American stalking of Kang Nam I, which
drew outrage from Pyongyang as one step prior to a
declaration of "war", the reaction of the North Korean
government to the grounding of the Mu San has been
dead silence. The incident does not contain enough
incendiary circumstances to blow out into a major diplomatic
row or a confrontation between the governments of North
Korea and India, which anyway have minimal relations.
But by taking the bull by the horns and not releasing the
ship nearly two weeks after it was seized, New Delhi has
opened new possibilities for cooperation with Washington and
also sent unmistakable signals to hostile proliferation
racketeers and intelligence agencies not to snoop around its
Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world
politics at the Jindal Global Law School in Sonipat, India.
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