South Africa told the United Nations in a confidential report that it seized arms traveling from North Korea by way of China, marking at least the third time a government interdicted North Korean weapons shipments since the U.N. last summer adopted harsher sanctions against Pyongyang.
European Pressphoto AgencySouth Africa’s disclosure to the U.N. that it had confiscated North Korean arms marked the third interdiction since June, including weapons, above, that Thailand impounded in December.
The incident is likely to focus attention on China’s role in enforcing sanctions against its ally and neighbor, with which it shares a long common border. China is by far North Korea’s largest trading partner and its most important supplier of everything from food to fuel to consumer goods. China, a permanent member of the Security Council, voted in favor of the tighter sanctions that went into effect in June 2009.
According a terse, two-page account delivered by the Pretoria government earlier this month to the U.N. committee overseeing the enforcement of U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea, South African authorities in November seized two containers filled with tank parts and other military equipment from North Korea. The report said the containers, which were loaded on a ship in the Chinese port of Dalian and bound for the Republic of the Congo, contained gun sights, tracks and other spare parts for T-54 and T-55 tanks and other war material valued at an estimated $750,000.
The military equipment was concealed in containers lined with sacks of rice, said the confidential South African report, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Shipping documents identified the cargo as spare parts for a “bulldozer,” according to the report, which said the goods were shipped by a North Korean company.
The North Korean mission to the U.N. in New York and the Congo’s U.N. ambassador didn’t respond to requests for comment.
This week’s disclosure comes after Thailand in December seized a planeload of North Korean rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons apparently bound for Iran. Last summer, the United Arab Emirates seized a shipment of detonators and rocket launchers that U.N. officials say were shipped through Dalian and bound for Iran.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a briefing with reporters Thursday that Beijing is aware of the latest issue and is looking into it, but declined to comment further. Chinese Customs officials also declined to comment Thursday.
Beijing has sought to balance competing interests—aiming to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear-weapons programs, without pushing hard enough to cause a sudden collapse of dictator Kim Jong Il’s regime, which could spark a military confrontation and lead to a flood of North Korean refugees into China.
As North Korea has become increasingly isolated, it has become more reliant on China to keep its economy afloat. In 2009, according to Chinese government figures, two-way trade between the two neighbors totaled $2.68 billion, down 4% from the year earlier, but up nearly 36% compared with 2007. China’s exports to North Korea were $1.89 billion last year, down about 7% from 2008, while imports rose 4% to $793 million.
South Africa’s report to the U.N. is short on detail. It doesn’t indicate, for example, how the goods were identified as North Korean and how they were transported to Dalian, in northeastern China across the Yellow Sea from North Korea.
Chinese traders based in Dandong, China, said trade with the North has fallen since the sanctions were imposed and that Chinese authorities have noticeably stepped up inspections of the cargos that travel by truck and rail over the bridge linking Dandong to North Korea, one of the main conduits for trade between the neighbors.
Officials with shipping companies in Dalian also say trade has declined since last year. One North Korean shipping company has a regular run that visits Dalian roughly once a week, said a shipping company official, who said most of the containers it carries are goods in transit bound for other ports. He said Chinese Customs officials seldom open containers to inspect cargos.
The shipping officials said it is highly unlikely goods from North Korea would be shipped into China by land and brought to Dalian to be put on a ship. Cargo generally comes to Dalian from North Korea by sea for transshipment, they said.
Diplomats in neighboring South Korea have said they generally give China high marks for enforcing the expanded U.N. sanctions.
Saul Kgomotso Molobi, chief director for public diplomacy at South Africa’s foreign ministry, confirmed the November cargo seizure but otherwise declined to comment, saying the matter is still under investigation. The reason for South Africa’s delay in informing the U.N. of its actions remains unclear.
According to the report, the containers were loaded in Dalian onto the CMA CGM Musca, a large, ocean-going container ship operated by the French shipping line CMA CGM and flying the United Kingdom’s flag.
The Musca delivered the containers to Port Klang, one of Malaysia’s busiest sea ports. There they were transferred to another ship, identified as the Westerhever, chartered by a CMA CGM subsidiary, the report says. It says the shipping company ordered the Westerhever’s captain to discharge the arms-laden containers in Durban, South Africa. It doesn’t say who initially raised suspicions about the cargo.
CMA CGM said it was cooperating with the appropriate authorities and declined to comment specifically on the matter. “As a global carrier transporting every year millions of containers, CMA CGM takes its responsibilities to international regulation, the security of their vessels, and the cargo carried on board, extremely seriously,” the company said through a public-relations firm, Maritime Technical International.
The U.N.’s sanctions, a response to a nuclear test North Korea conducted in May, prohibit all arms-related trade with North Korea, urge national authorities to inspect suspicious North Korean cargos and allow countries to block financial transactions and freeze assets that could contribute to North Korea’s weapons programs. The U.N.’s list of contraband North Korean items ranges from tanks and large-caliber artillery systems to attack helicopters and missile systems, and related spare parts.
The containers seized by South Africa held communications equipment for tanks, gun sights, seats, tracks, tank periscopes, protective headgear for tank crews, search lights as well as a radio with Chinese markings, the report said. The parts were for Soviet-designed T-54 and T-55 tanks, once widely used in the Eastern Bloc and still common in developing-country militaries.
The report says the shipment was to have arrived at Point Noire, in the Republic of Congo, and identified the intended recipient as DGE Corp., which it identified as a North Korean entity with a phone number in Congo. A recording at that number said the line isn’t currently in service.
Africa has long been a major weapons buyer, given the multitude of armed conflicts on the continent. Wars, civil wars and insurgencies are estimated to cost Africa’s economies a combined $18 billion a year, according to a 2007 joint analysis by the nongovernmental organizations International Action Network on Small Arms, Oxfam International and Saferworld.
Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville, is ruled by Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who has been in power for much of the past three decades. Mr. Sassou-Nguesso, who was re-elected last year, has been accused by Transparency International of spending his country’s oil wealth on lavish cars and property in France, allegations he denies. His government has been engaged in on-and-off battles with rebels.
Since many such weapons deals are brokered by middlemen, it is possible that Congo wasn’t aware that North Korea was the seller and that it was violating U.N. sanctions with the purchase, according to Guy Lamb, an arms-control analyst in Cape Town for the Institute for Security Studies.
Arms sales were once an important source of hard-currency earnings for the reclusive Communist North Korean government, which maintains one of the world’s largest standing armies despite a crumbling domestic economy that has for years left the country facing famine and fuel shortages.
The U.S. Congressional Research Service has estimated that between 1998 and 2001, Pyongyang earned an average of about $250 million a year from conventional weapons sales. But analysts believe that North Korean arms exports have been declining for some time in the face of increased international scrutiny.
The impact of the new U.N. sanctions on North Korea has been difficult to measure. But one sign of their effectiveness is the speed with which Pyongyang has reached out to South Korea, which it had pushed away for more than a year before the sanctions, for new economic assistance. South Korea has offered humanitarian help but made economic aid contingent on Pyongyang’s scaling back its nuclear-weapons program.
—Kersten Zhang in Beijing, Evan Ramstad in Seoul and David Gauthier-Villars in Paris contributed to this article.