In the past month, American naval and air forces have intercepted two North Korean vessels clandestinely en route for Iran with cargoes of enriched uranium and nuclear equipment. The shutdown of Pongyong’s nuclear facilities has made these items surplus to North Korea’s requirements and worth a good price to the Islamic Republic.
Revealing this, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and military sources describe the second incident in detail.
On July 12, the second intercepted North Korean freighter was sunk in the Arabian Sea by torpedoes fired from a US submarine 100 miles southeast of the Iranian naval base-port of Chah Bahar. Delivery of its freight of enriched weapons-grade uranium and equipment and engines for manufacturing more fissile material including plutonium in its hold could have jumped-forwarded Iran’s nuclear bomb and warhead project, lopping off at least a year of work. For this Iran’s rulers were ready to fork out $500 million.
A few hours earlier, President George W. Bush received an intelligence briefing on the vessel, its freight – listed on official documents as a consignment of iron – and destination.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that the shipment was brought forward by several weeks to evade detection by UN nuclear watchdog inspectors who were to descend on Pyongyang this week to verify the dismantling of its nuclear facilities.
US airplanes had been tracking the freighter and picked up signs of radioactivity, indicating the presence of nuclear materials aboard.
Iran offers $1.5 billion for discarded North Korea nuclear items
President Bush had the option of ordering US Marines to board the vessel or sinking it. He decided on the latter – both because the North Korean freighter was approaching an area patrolled by Iranian naval units and seizure of the vessel by American marines might have provoked a clash; also so as not to expose US troops to radioactive contamination. He therefore first ordered American naval and air units in the Persian Gulf, Middle East and seas opposite North Korea to go on a high state of readiness and torpedo the North Korean vessel without delay.
After the attack, US warships raced to the spot where the ship went down. They picked up three lifeboats. Most of the North Korean sailors aboard were either injured or dead. Twenty in all died in the attack. They all bore symptoms of contamination. After the episode, the area was cordoned off and underwater equipment dropped to salvage the cargo from the sunken ship.
All the parties to the incident, the United States, North Korea and Iran, have kept it dark. The situation in and around the Gulf is inflammable enough to explode into a full-blown Iranian-US clash at the slightest provocation. There was also the danger of North Korea aborting the closure of its nuclear facilities at the last moment.
Last February, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report the Central Intelligence Agency warned the White House that Iran had offered North Korea a billion and a half dollars in secret negotiations for key components of its dismantled nuclear industry.
In March or early April, Kim Jong-Il decided in the interests of prudence to spurn the offer. He feared that if the deal leaked out to US intelligence, he could say goodbye to the rewards and benefits promised for giving up his nuclear weapons.
But on second thoughts, the North Korea ruler decided it was worth taking the risk of a limited deal with Iran and he therefore agreed to –
1. Subtract for Iran a portion of enriched uranium from his stock.
2. Make up some of Iran’s shortages of high tech equipment for manufacturing weapons.
3. Lend Tehran dozens of nuclear engineers and technicians who have been put out of their jobs by the shutdown of North Korean’s program. With their help, Iran can speed up its program
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that three senior North Korean engineers are due in Tehran by August 20 and another nine in December. By then, North Korea expects the IAEA certificate confirming the closure of its nuclear program to be safely in the bag.
Tehran is also giving North Korea three years’ supply of free oil.
The CIA knew about the North Korean deliveries and knew they would be disguised as iron shipments, but were not clear how many ships would be used.
France helps net the first suspect North Korean freighter
Over several weeks, the Americans cast a dense net of maritime and aerial surveillance, co-opting friendly Asian and European air and naval forces, to keep tabs on every vessel departing North Korea with freights of iron.
The first North Korean vessel was caught in the net on June 25.
Suspected of carrying radioactive materials hidden behind a cargo of iron, the vessel had entered the Arabia Sea and was two days voyage from Iran when, according to our sources in Paris, President Bush and French president Nicolas Sarkozy had a quick conversation over secure lines. That exchange resulted in a decision to rush US and French naval units in the neighborhood to intercept the suspect North Korean freighter and blow it out of the water.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that much about the incident remains under tight wraps. It is not clear whether the ship was sunk by an American or a French submarine and, even after the event, it is not certain that the doomed ship did in fact carry nuclear materials or equipment.
Three days later, on June 28, the US Navy released this statement:
US sailors helped rescue the crew of a North Korean-flagged ship on Monday. The incident occurred in the Arabian Sea when the ship reported it had engine problems, no food or water and was in danger of sinking. The USNS Kanawha and the French ship Dupleix helped evacuate the ship’s 16 crew members to safety. None of the crew was a North Korean citizen.
The US and French ships are part of Combined Task Force 150, which conducts maritime security operations in the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, the North Arabian Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean.
The Military Sealift Command ship in the US Naval Fleet is the USNS Kanawha Auxiliary Force.
Our sources note that before these two episodes, the last time the US Navy or Air Force directly attacked a North Korean vessel was in December 2002, four months before the invasion of Iraq.
That operation was also carried out in conjunction with a European naval force. The CIA located in the Indian Ocean a North Korean freighter carrying a disguised freight of Scud missiles bound for Saddam Hussein’s army in Iraq. The missiles were to have been unloaded in Yemen and smuggled into Iraq. The ship was boarded by Spanish marines under the cover of American helicopters.