Ukraine gets into North Korea illegal arms export mess

Ukraine has become embroiled in another arms scandal after a cargo plane carrying tonnes of weapons, allegedly from North Korea, and destined for Ukraine has been seized during a refueling stop at Bangkok airport.

One of the detained crew members says the aircraft also set off from Ukraine, and was expected to return there after several stopovers.

Another mystery shipment

An IL-76 plane leased to a Ukrainian company was seized in Thailand with over 35 tonnes of North Korean weaponry onboard. The cargo, including rocket launchers and missile systems, is said to have been headed to conflict zones in the Middle East.

Some say North Korea is using smuggling network to fund its banned nuclear program.

Though Moon Tae-young, a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman, commented that this information has not been confirmed yet, he said that “When it is finalized that the weapons were transferred from North Korea, it is violating UN Resolution No.1874. When it becomes clear that it violated No.1874, the Thai government has authorization to seize, take possessions and dispose of them.”

Vladimir Kremlev for RT (click to enlarge)

Comments from the Russian side have been quick to follow. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Aleksey Borodavkin, officially stated, “This incident shows that sanctions and all other mechanisms implemented by the UN Security Council work well. It also shows that North Korea’s attempts to smuggle weapons illegally are futile and have no future.”

Experts are speculating as to whether the timing of the seizure is significant. Saying Washington could be looking for a way to apply pressure to Pyongyang. Many have been talking of North Korea’s illegal activity on the arms market for a long time, but it may be no coincidence that this plane was captured now, when six-party talks on denuclearizing the peninsula are in a stalemate.

US special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, additionally reminded that the US “like the other five countries, participating in the 6-party talks, is already committed to negotiate towards the establishment of a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula as part of the joint statement. But as I pointed out in Pyongyang, one of the fundamental requirements of prominent peace on the Korean Peninsula will be denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The Ukrainian trace

But what is creating a real scandal here is that the plane was flying from and to Ukraine.

Speculation is growing that Kiev acted as a mediator in an illegal weapons deal between Pyongyang and unidentified buyers.

The illegal arms export issue was making a massive political noise in Ukraine last year. Some opposition deputies in parliament conducted their own investigation, after which they claimed that some high-profile politicians were involved in this murky business.

First it was the seizure of the Ukrainian ship Faina by Somali pirates with three dozen Soviet-made tanks on board which made headlines. Reports suggested that the weaponry was headed to Sudan’s Darfur region, which had a UN weapons embargo imposed on it.

Then a parliamentary commission revealed alleged sales of Ukrainian arms to Georgia at ridiculously low prices prior to the South-Ossetian conflict, as if deliberately arming Tbilisi. And, as the commission claimed, the sale was sanctioned personally by Ukraine’s president.

The deputy, who headed the investigation, says that Ukraine’s reputation as a reliable and legal arms exporter has been crippled.

“Illegal arms sales are being carried out under the cover of Ukraine's special services and people close to President Yushchenko himself,” claims Ukraine’s Parliament’s Deputy Valery Konovalyuk. “This is being done with impunity and contrary to international law. There were reports that some people are supplying arms to Pakistan, and to the Taliban.”

The plane’s crew has been charged with illegal arms possession and weapons smuggling. However, they say they were just couriers and had little idea of what they carried on board.

In the mean time, just as in all previous weapon sale scandals, Kiev is denying any involvement.