SEOUL, South Korea – A U.S. Navy destroyer is tailing a North Korean ship suspected of carrying illicit weapons toward Myanmar in what could be the first test of new U.N. sanctions against the North over its recent nuclear test, a leading TV network said.
The South Korean news network YTN, citing an unidentified intelligence source in the South, said the U.S. suspects the cargo ship Kang Nam is carrying missiles and related parts. Myanmar’s military government, which faces an arms embargo from the United States and the European Union, has reportedly bought weapons from North Korea.
YTN said Sunday that the U.S. has deployed a destroyer and is using satellites to track the ship, which was expected to travel to Myanmar via Singapore.
South Korea’s Defence Ministry, Unification Ministry and National Intelligence Service said they could not confirm the report. Calls to the U.S. military command in Seoul were not answered late Sunday.
The ship is reportedly the first North Korean vessel to be tracked under the new U.N. sanctions.
Two U.S. officials said Thursday that the U.S. military had begun tracking the ship, which left a North Korean port Wednesday and was travelling off the coast of China.
One of the officials said it was uncertain what the Kang Nam was carrying, but that it had been involved in weapons proliferation before. Both spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have spiked since North Korea defiantly conducted its second nuclear explosion on May 25. It later declared it would expand its atomic bomb program and threatened war to protest the U.N. sanctions imposed in response to its nuclear test.
The sanctions toughen an earlier arms embargo against North Korea and authorize ship searches in an attempt to thwart its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The Security Council resolution calls on all 192 U.N. member states to inspect vessels on the high seas “if they have information that provides reasonable grounds to believe that the cargo” contains banned weapons or material to make them, and if approval is given by the country whose flag the ship sails under.
If the country refuses to give approval, it must direct the vessel “to an appropriate and convenient port for the required inspection by the local authorities.”
A senior U.S. military official told The Associated Press on Friday that a Navy ship, the USS John S. McCain, is relatively close to the North Korean vessel but had no orders to intercept it under the Security Council resolution and had not requested that authority. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive issue of ship movements.
The Navy ship, a guided missile destroyer, is named after the grandfather and father of former U.S. presidential candidate Sen. John McCain. Both were admirals.
McCain said Sunday that the U.S. should board the Kang Nam even without North Korean permission if hard evidence shows it is carrying missiles or other cargo in violation of U.N. resolutions.
“I think we should board it. It’s going to contribute to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to rogue nations that pose a direct threat to the United States,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
President Barack Obama said the U.N. sanctions would be aggressively enforced after talks Tuesday with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Washington. Obama also reaffirmed the U.S. security commitment to South Korea, including nuclear protection.
In its first response to the summit, North Korea’s government-run weekly Tongil Sinbo said Obama’s comments revealed a U.S. plot to invade the North with nuclear weapons.
“It’s not a coincidence at all for the U.S. to have brought numerous nuclear weapons into South Korea and other adjacent sites, staging various massive war drills opposing North Korea every day and watching for a chance for an invasion,” it said in a commentary published Saturday.
North Korea says its nuclear program is a deterrent against the U.S., which it routinely accuses of plotting to topple its communist regime. The U.S., which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, has repeatedly said it has no such intention and has no nuclear weapons there.