A North Korean cargo ship being closely tailed by the United States Navy appears to be changing course, and may be returning to North Korea. The ship has come to be seen as an initial test of new United Nations restrictions on Pyongyang.
U.S. officials say the Kang Nam, a North Korean cargo ship, is apparently abandoning the course it has been on for a week toward Southeast Asia, and may now be headed back home.
The ship, which intelligence officials describe as having a history of transporting North Korean weapons for sale, was believed to have been headed toward Burma. A U.S. Navy destroyer group began tracking the ship about a week ago under suspicion it may be carrying items banned under a recently passed United Nations Security Council Resolution.
The ship was expected to refuel in Singapore, where the government had promised what it called "appropriate action" under the U.N. resolution. Park Seung-jae, an analyst with the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul, says that may have helped change Pyongyang's mind about the voyage.
"When they (North Korea) go through Singapore, they cannot ignore inspection from Singapore. Also, on the other hand, it may be very difficult for them to throw out weapons or nuclear equipment on the sea," said Park.
Park says if the ship does return to the North, it will bolster the impression that international sanctions against Pyongyang are effective. He says the United States and its partners will need to maintain close scrutiny of the North's shipping.
"North Korean ships in Myanmar and Iran will be the first priority to watch," he said.
Weapons sales are an important source of hard currency for North Korea, one of the most economically isolated and impoverished nations in the world. Washington also fears Pyongyang may attempt to cash in on its nuclear programs by selling equipment, technology, or even fissile material to nations or groups hostile to the United States.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, passed in response to North Korea's nuclear test in May, authorizes member states to inspect the North's ships in their ports or territory.
North Korea has said on several recent occasions it would view any attempt to stop and inspect its ships by the United States or South Korea as an act of war, and retaliate accordingly. Pyongyang's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper extended that threat to Japan Wednesday, saying "responsibility for all consequences" of military action would rest will Tokyo if it attempted an inspection.