A group of American scientists is expressing alarm at a possible attempt by North Korea to ship portable anti-aircraft missile systems abroad. The missiles were part of a an airborne cargo intercepted by authorities in Thailand in December.
The Federation of American Scientists, based in Washington, is urging more vigilance by the international community after the discovery of so-called MANPADS missile systems aboard a cargo plane loaded in North Korea.
The plane was intercepted during a landing in Thailand two months ago. The U.S. group cites a report to the United Nations Security Council as saying the plane contained "five crates" of MANPADS, which stands for man-portable air defense system.
"These are normally shoulder-fired, always man-portable, surface-to-air missiles," said Matt Schroeder, the manager of the FAS Arms Sales Monitoring Project.
The missiles are usually built to target the heat signature of airplane engines. Schroeder says when used properly, they can literally empower a single individual to take down an aircraft.
"They've been used in 48 confirmed instances against civilian aircraft, which has resulted in 45 shoot-downs. Recent hotspots for illicit MANPADS activity are Somalia, the horn of Africa, Iraq, and then Russia - that was when the Chechen conflict was heating up," he said.
International diplomats say shipping such weapons is a clear violation of United Nations sanctions against North Korea following its second test of a nuclear weapon last May. Schroeder says it presents a unique challenge for global leaders.
"If North Korea is proliferating these weapons - if they are distributing them or selling them on the black market - that's going to be a very, very difficult thing for policymakers to deal with, because they are so isolated, they're such a pariah state and they are so dismissive of international concerns," he said.
Economists say arms sales are a significant source of hard currency revenue for North Korea's isolated and cash-strapped government. Schroeder says it remains unclear whether the missile systems were produced in North Korea or whether Pyongyang was acting as an intermediary supplier for a purchaser.
"If North Korea is a transit country, then the international community has something to work with. They can go to the producer and say, 'This is completely unacceptable. You must stop this,'" he said.
Schroeder says the worst case scenario would be if North Korea produced the missiles, on its own. That means it would not only be difficult to disrupt the North's supply chain, but that the brand-new missiles would be in good working order to be used against targets.