Underway for two weeks now, North Korea's unimposing merchant ship Kang Nam 1 continues her mystery trip through the South China Sea at a sedate 10 knots. I expect this is for better fuel economy but not because her captain or Kim Jong Il want to be green. According to the Associated Press, anonymous U.S. intelligence sources said on Tuesday that she altered course back north and is now about 250 miles south of Hong Kong.
Kang Nam 1 is believed by some Western authorities to possibly be bound, or at least originally have been bound, for Myanmar with an export shipment of conventional arms -- maybe mortars, or perhaps missile parts. Herein lies the rub. After Kim's second-ever atom bomb test in May, the UN passed a resolution, binding on all member states, which gives the appearance of establishing a quarantine against maritime transport of arms or nuclear-related items for sale by the DPRK. But the resolution lacks teeth. If Kang Nam 1 can somehow make it to a friendly destination (Myanmar, or back to her starting point of Nampo, or somewhere else) without refueling in a third-party pro-UN port such as Singapore, nothing stands in her way.
A U.S. Navy spokesman indicated a lack of good data on both the ship's fuel mileage and the capacity of her fuel tanks, though presumably experts can make basic estimates. It's unclear to me from public accounts whether Kang Nam 1 was provided before departure with extra fuel, a large cache of which could simply take the form of fuel drums crammed into some of her holds. It's also unclear what might happen if she's met in international waters, in reasonably calm weather, by another North Korean-flagged ship, civilian or naval, that could conduct a primitive but effective underway replenishment. Kang Nam 1 has been trailed from beyond the horizon by a U.S. Navy destroyer, but the U.S. is proceeding very cautiously about making any sort of demand to board and inspect the cargo.
David Sanger of the New York Times suggests that Kang Nam 1's voyage might be a provocation designed to embarrass America. I'm inclined to agree. Sean McGuire of Reuters hints that increasing leaks of outside reality into North Korea could undermine the credibility of Kim's strident anti-U.S. rhetoric among his own people, weakening his power. To dramatically innoculate the populace against such "external disinformation" would give Kim ample motive to have set up Kang Nam 1 as bait in an elaborate propaganda trap.
If Kang Nam 1 needs and wants to refuel in Singapore or Hong Kong or wherever, and her cargo upon an inspection turns out to be harmless, Kim Jong Il has further "proof," for domestic consumption, of American persecution against the DPRK and its interests. Main elements of the USS Ronald Reagan carrier battle group docked last week in Singapore for leave and local volunteerism. What might appear as a not-coincidental show of American strength to Pyongyang, were Kang Nam 1 to try to sail right by through the Strait of Malacca without stopping, could be turned around by Kim into further proof of alleged American evil intent, thus doing more than merely salvaging face when his ship turned around. Pyongyang could cast their merchie as the intrepid underdog in a long-distance stand-off with the big, bad superpower's supercarrier, giving ship and crew a hero's welcome back home. If Kang Nam 1 somehow does make it to Myanmar -- assuming that's ever been her intended destination -- without triggering a UN third-party in-harbor inspection somewhere, Kim can whip up patriotic fervor about the technical ingenuity and self-sacrificing perseverance of his valiant merchant marine.
In extremis, say if an attempt to board by force to inspect on the high seas were made, the crew can scuttle Kang Nam 1 in deep water and take to their lifeboats. They could even set explosive charges on short timers before they abandon her. Ambiguity as to the real nature of her cargo would thus be preserved, and ambiguity would work entirely to Kim Jong Il's advantage.
-- Joe Buff