SEOUL, South Korea – A North Korean ship suspected of carrying illicit weapons was plying the waters off Shanghai on Tuesday en route to Myanmar, a news report said, as regional military officials and a U.S. destroyer kept a close eye on the vessel's movements.
Washington's top military commander in South Korea, meanwhile, warned that the communist regime is bolstering its guerrilla warfare capacity.
Gen. Walter Sharp, who commands the 28,500 U.S. troops positioned in South Korea, said the North could employ roadside bombs and other guerrilla tactics if war breaks out again on the Korean peninsula. The two Koreas technically remain at war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.
North Korea's 1.2 million-member army makes it one of the world's largest. Some 180,000 are special operation forces. North Korea is believed to have been boosting its urban, nighttime and special operation capabilities in the wake of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, South Korea's Defense Ministry said.
Tensions have been high in the wake of North Korea's defiant underground nuclear test May 25 in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
A new resolution was passed June 12 in a bid to stop North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile programs and selling its technology.
Last Wednesday, a North Korean-flagged vessel left the port of Nampo and was being trailed by a U.S. destroyer, a U.S. official said, making it the first ship monitored under the new U.N. sanctions.
The Kang Nam, accused of transporting illicit goods in the past, is believed to be carrying banned small arms to Myanmar, a South Korean intelligence official said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
However, analysts say a high seas interception — something North Korea has said it would consider an act of war — is unlikely.
The resolution calls on U.N. member states to inspect North Korean vessels if they have "reasonable grounds" to believe that its cargo contains banned weapons or materials. But it must first get the consent of the nation whose flag the ship is flying — in this case, North Korea.
North Korea, however, is unlikely to allow any inspection of its cargo, making interception unlikely, said Hong Hyun-ik, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul.
If North Korea refuses, authorities must direct the vessel to a port. U.N. members have been ordered not to provided suspected ships with services such as fuel.
Singapore, the world's busiest port and a top refueling center, said officials would "act appropriately" if asked to confront a North Korean ship believed to be carrying banned cargo.
"Singapore takes seriously the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, their means of delivery and related materials," a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry said Tuesday on condition of anonymity according to ministry policy. "If the allegation is true, Singapore will act appropriately."
The South Korean broadcaster YTN said the ship was traveling in waters 230 miles southeast of Shanghai at a speed of about 11.5 miles per hour.
The Kang Nam is expected to dock at Myanmar's Thilawa port, some 20 miles south of Yangon, in the next few days, according to the Irrawaddy, an online magazine operated by independent exiled journalists from Myanmar.
The magazine cited an unidentified port official as saying North Korean ships have docked there in the past. The magazine's in-depth coverage of Myanmar is generally reliable.
North Korea is believed to have sold guns, artillery and other small weapons to Myanmar, said Kim Jin-moo, an analyst at Seoul's state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
A senior U.S. military official told The Associated Press last week that a Navy ship, the USS John S. McCain, is relatively close to the North Korean vessel but had no orders to intercept it. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
U.S. and Japanese military officials said they could not provide details about the whereabouts of either ship.
An armed skirmish is unlikely, analysts said, though the North Korean crew was likely armed with rifles.
"It's still a cargo ship. A cargo ship can't confront a warship," said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.