N.Korean Cargo Ship 'Approaching Moment of Truth'

The North Korean cargo ship Kangnam that is being tracked by a U.S. destroyer due to suspicions that it carries weapons is steaming toward the moment of truth. "The moment is approaching when the North Korea sanctions framework led by the U.S. and North Korean provocations collide," a government official said Thursday. Chances are the moment will come when the ship pulls into port, he added.

The U.S. has been monitoring the 2,080-ton Kangnam with KH-12 reconnaissance satellite and P-3C patrol plane mobilized since it left Nampo Port on June 17. Since June 21, the ship has been tracked by Aegis destroyer USS John S. McCain. It will reach the South China Sea on Friday sailing through the Taiwan Straits. "Washington believes that the ship is headed for Burma via Singapore," said an intelligence officer.

Whether the U.S. will board the ship to inspect it remains to be seen. If a ship with the size of the Kangnam is to navigate over 6,660 km from Nampo to Burma, it needs to refuel in Singapore or a Vietnamese port. The Pentagon said Thursday a decision has yet to be made whether to inspect the Kangnam. But government officials here said chances are that the ship will sail into a port sooner or later.

If the ship is searched and illegal weapons are found, "the U.S. will achieve a diplomatic coup and will be able to tighten sanctions against the North. If not, resistance will from China and other countries will grow and international cooperation in punishing Pyongyang will falter," speculated Kim Sung-han, a professor at Korea University. There are fears the ship will dump any weapons into the sea before inspection.

Because the Security Council resolution does not permit forcible searches of North Korean vessels on the high seas, the U.S. military needs consent from Pyongyang, which is out of the question. Even if the Kangnam sails into a particular port, that country has to authorize any search.

A diplomat said, "The effectiveness of North Korea sanctions under U.S. leadership and the prospects for Pyongyang-Washington relations will become clearer depending which port the Kangnam calls on, whether an inspection will take place, and what cargo is carried on the ship."

Given that North Korea has threatened military action against what it calls a "blockade" of its ships, "the Kangnam could act as a detonating fuse," a security ministry official warned.

englishnews@chosun.com / Jun. 26, 2009 11:56 KST