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    South Asia
     Aug 21, 2009

Wary India frisks North Korean freighter
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 and suspicious.

Indian officials have learned that the Mu San docked unscheduled in 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 held.

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 technologies.

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 laws".

The ambiguity stems from New 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 waters.

Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the Jindal Global Law School in Sonipat, India.

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