The North Korean issue has finally haunted the Indian shores. As international noose begins to tighten on North Korea following its nuke tests and missile launches, its belligerent behaviour does not show any sign of waning. North Korea has remained under suspect for its nuclear links with Iran and Myanmar. Now the news that a North Korean merchant vessel MV Musen dropped anchor just five km off Hut Bay Island in Little Andamon without authorization has surprised the Indian authorities. The Indian Coast Guard detained the 'suspicious' North Korean ship on 6 August 2009 after more than six hours of high drama that ended with Indian sailors firing in the air.
The question that puzzles security analysts in India is why did the vessel violate international law and come to India's territorial water without permission. Given the close liaison with China, is it a Chinese ploy to use the North Korean vessel to engage in surveillance activities? Though it would be hard to get into the truth, this possibility cannot be discounted, given that China's maritime ambition is too huge. Though, as admitted by Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta in a speech on 10 August 2009, Indian Navy is no match to the Chinese Navy in terms of capability, India obviously cannot remain as a mute spectator if illegal activities take place in its neighbourhood. No wonder, Admiral Mehta said that 'the North Korean vessel had no business being there'.
The suspect ship, with 39 sailors onboard, was escorted to Port Blair for further investigations. The paperwork onboard the Musen was found to be incomplete. Though the cargo ship's captain claimed during interrogation that the vessel had anchored due to a mechanical fault, maritime agencies rarely would take chances with North Korean ships, thanks to Pyongyang's track record on proliferation of nuclear and missile technology.
According to K.R. Nautiyal, DIG, Coast Guard, Andaman and Nicobar Region, several things were amiss about Musen, which declared during interrogation that it was carrying 16,500 tonnes of sugar from Thailand to Umm Qasr in Iraq. Even if the vessel was carrying genuine merchandise, it should have responded when the Indian Coast Guard plane flew over Musen. The very fact that Coast Guard vessel Kanakalata Barua had to fire twice in the air after nearing the spot when Musen tried to move out gave ground for suspicion.
It is widely known that North Korean vessels have been found to be carrying nuclear or missile-related cargo in the past for regimes pursuing clandestine nuclear programmes. North Korea itself is a recipient of clandestine transfers of weapons technology and materials from China and since then, it has emerged as a major source of proliferation. Its alleged clientele include Pakistan, Syria, Iran, and now Myanmar. In June 2009, the US military tracked one such 'proliferator' ship, Kang Nam, along the coast of China. Kang Nam was believed to be sailing towards Myanmar, suddenly turned back towards home, though Pyongyang had made belligerent statement that it would consider it as an act of war if the Kang Nam is detained and searched by any country during its journey.
India is not shy of detecting erring vessels if they intrude into Indian waters. In 1999, when the Kargil conflict with Pakistan was at its peak, North Korean vessel MV Ku Wol San was impounded off the Kandla port and found to be carrying 177 tonnes of missile components, blueprints and manuals, even though the ship's manifest claimed it was carrying 13,000 tonnes of sugar and water purification equipment. Ku Wol San was seized on 29 June 1999, after tip-offs that it was transporting missile and nuclear components to Pakistan's Karachi port, even though North Korea claimed the consignment was headed for Malta.
Indian authorities are investigating the unscheduled stop of the vessel. Musen left Laem Chabang port in Thailand on 27 July, made an unscheduled stop at Singapore on 30 July, left Singapore the following day without stamping done, and dropped anchor at Hut Bay Island of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
There are several dimensions that need to be probed. Musen had made several voyages between North Korea and China without maintaining proper records. The ship had also berthed in Singapore in June, though the log book does not show it. After the vessel was detained and the captain questioned, it emerged that the ship dropped anchor off Hut Bay on 5 August without anybody noticing for almost two days. Why were the passports of crew members not stamped in Singapore? This seems to be the most sensational security breach since the Mumbai attack on 26 September 2008.
There were several inconsistencies in the statements made during interrogation. The initial claim of mechanical snag that forced the captain to drop anchor at Hut Bay turned out to be false. Later, the captain said that the vessel's destination (Iraq) was changed midway and he was asked to drop anchor somewhere till the new destination was decided. When asked why the vessel tried to escape, the captain said he mistook Kanakalata Barua for a pirate vessel. The captain also said that the impromptu change in schedule was made in order to take the cargo to Kakinada. Though merchant vessels do change course sometimes, there was no satisfactory explanation in this case. According to Interocean, the Delhi-based agent of the ship in India, Kakinada was not a port of call for Musen on this voyage. In fact, Interocean knew about Musen's intended journey to Kakinada from the Coast Guard only after it was detained. The fact that the vessel ventured into the isolated stretch, which is mostly avoided because of its strong currents, evoked legitimate suspicion.
As North Korea is suspected of helping Myanmar's bomb-making program and Pakistani scientists are allegedly boosting Myanmar's nuclear ambitions, India has legitimate reasons to worry of a possible nuclear alliance between Myanmar and Pakistan. In such a scenario, peace and stability in South Asia will be disturbed.
UN member states are authorized to inspect North Korea sea, air and land cargo, and seize and destroy any goods transported in violation of a Security Council resolution in June 2009 following North's nuclear tests. The search is in compliance with the UN resolution.
The Indian external intelligence is believed to have 'definite reports' that North Korea was transferring equipment and material to Myanmar to help it build a nuclear reactor. India is trying to find out whether the Musen was anywhere near Myanmar. New Delhi is wary of a possible North Korea-Myanmar nuclear cooperation and had therefore stepped up security near the Andaman Islands, which is close to Myanmar. With increasing reports of North Korea helping Myanmar build a nuclear reactor, India would have the legitimate right to check any vessel floating in Indian waters without a possible reason.
It was the first time a ship has been seized and boarded under sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council in June 2009. The UNSC Resolution, intended to punish North Korea for its nuclear test, forbids North Korea to traffic in a wide range of nuclear and conventional weaponry and calls on UN members to search North Korean ships, with crews' consent, if there are 'reasonable grounds' to suspect that banned cargo is abroad.
North Korea, which walked out of the Six-Party Talks aimed at reining in its nuclear weapons programme, fired a barrage of short-range missiles in launch tests in May 2009 and exploded a nuclear device on 25 May 2009, is facing tougher UN sanctions. It is likely to face more international pressure in the coming months. Pyongyang seems to have realized that the eyes of the world are on them. The incident in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India's territory in the Bay of Bengal, shows that it is getting more pressure from countries around the world.
This article originally was published in Global Politician, (www.globalpolitician.com)