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Tae Min Hun, the dour captain of the North Korean freighter Kuwolsan, glared icily from the bridge as tempers around him soared in the midday heat. On June 30, 1999, as customs agents in India's northwestern port city of Kandla waited impatiently to board the vessel, Tae received urgent instructions from Pyongyang: At all cost, let no one open the cargo boxes.
The Indians tried to look anyway, and a melee erupted. Tae and his crew rained blows on inspectors and barricaded the doors with their bodies, according to witness accounts and video footage of the encounter. A few agents who managed to slip into the cargo bay were horrified to find North Koreans sealing the hatches, trapping them inside.
When the ship's doors were finally reopened at gunpoint, the reason for the extreme secrecy became clear. Hidden inside wooden crates marked "water refinement equipment" was an assembly line for ballistic missiles: tips of nose cones, sheet metal for rocket frames, machine tools, guidance systems and, in smaller crates, ream upon ream of engineers' drawings labeled "Scud B" and "Scud C." The intended recipient of the cargo, according to U.S. intelligence officials, was Libya.
"In the past we had seen missiles or engine parts, but here was an entire assembly line for missiles offered for sale," said an Indian government official familiar with the discovery. "This was a complete technology transfer."
Today, the evidence from the Kuwolsan remains locked in a military warehouse in the Indian capital, where it has been scrutinized since being seized four years ago. The results of India's investigation, shared among a small circle of intelligence and defense analysts, offer an extraordinary glimpse into the shadowy world of weapons proliferation, in which missile parts and bomb materials circle the globe undetected, secreted away in cargo containers and suitcases, concealed by phony ship manifests and fictitious company names, eluding customs agents and defying international treaties.
The Kuwolsan incident -- described in detailed court documents and interviews with officials in the United States and India -- also has reinforced a view of North Korea as the world's most dangerous source of weapons proliferation. North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, this year expelled U.N. inspectors, abandoned the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and declared plans to build an atomic weapon. Just as worrisome, according to U.S. intelligence officials, is North Korea's continuing global trade in technology for weapons of mass destruction -- including instructions for making advanced missiles. North Korea has defended its right to sell the weapons and has said it is not bound by international treaties restricting such trade.
The latest beneficiary appears to be Libya, but other nations are known to have received similar help, including Iran, Pakistan and Syria. North Korea has also sold missiles and parts to Yemen, which received 15 Scud missiles after they were briefly intercepted by U.S. and Spanish naval crews off the Yemeni coast in December.
The Kuwolsan cargo attests to the existence of a gray zone -- a combination of weak states, open borders, lack of controls and a ready market of buyers and sellers of weapons of mass destruction. Small packages are sometimes delivered in the luggage of individual airline passengers, such as the Taiwanese businessman who was arrested at Zurich's airport in 2000 with North Korean missile parts in his rucksack. Big-ticket items are moved in rusting freighters such as the Kuwolsan. Technical information and designs fly across the Internet.
"It is difficult, but not impossible, to intercept weapons and equipment," said Daniel Pinkston, a Korea specialist with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. "But human exchanges -- plans, data, intellectual property -- these are hard to intercept."
Detour Into Detention
In the end, a need for cash scuttled the Kuwolsan's mission. The black-hulled, 25-year-old freighter would probably have avoided Indian customs officials had the captain not gone out of his way to earn extra money, according to documents and interviews with officials.
Just 10 days after departing North Korea's Nampo harbor on April 10, 1999, the ship made detours to two Thai ports to pick up 14,000 tons of sugar for resale along the way, records show. A deal to sell the sugar to some Algerians fell through, so the ship switched course again, to sell it to an Indian company. That meant a stop at the busy port of Kandla, in Gujarat province in northwestern India.
"It was crazy," one Indian investigator recalled. "If you're carrying 200 tons of sensitive equipment, you don't go picking up extra cargo left and right."
While the ship was somewhere en route, Indian customs officials were tipped off to its possible contraband. The Kuwolsan was rumored to be carrying arms or ammunition, perhaps intended for India's neighbor and rival, Pakistan. When the North Korean freighter steamed into Kandla on June 25, port officials were waiting for it.
Within the first few hours, irregularities in the ship's papers became apparent. The company in Malta listed as the intended recipient of the cargo was fictitious, Indian officials learned. That prompted questions about the cargo itself: Why would Malta, an island nation a short flight from industrial Europe, choose to buy "water refining equipment" from faraway North Korea?
But as customs agents began to press for answers, Tae, the 61-year-old captain, turned defiant. He blocked every request with increasing pugnacity and threatened international reprisals if the Indians did not allow him to leave Kandla.
Finally, on June 30, as customs agents demanded a look at the boxes, Tae turned up with what he said was a telex he had just received from North Korea.
"As per the telex, he would not open any more boxes," according to the official Indian after-action report. Afterward, "the crew members shouted at the [customs] officers and abused them."
"It got very physical. There were fisticuffs," said an Indian official who was present and who spoke on the condition that his name not be used. "At one point, the crew began closing the hatches to the cargo hold, with the customs inspectors still inside."
Hours passed in a tense standoff. Then, on July 1, backed by armed troops and a group of government weapons experts, customs officers forced their way back onto the ship for a first look at what was really inside the Kuwolsan's wooden boxes.
'Only One End-Use'
True to the labels, some crates among the Kuwolsan's cargo did contain equipment that could be used in a water treatment plant. Inspectors found pumps, nozzles and a few valves.
Everything else appeared to have been transported straight from a missile factory. Documents from the investigation contain a partial list:
* Components for missile subassembly.
* Machine tools for setting up a fabrication facility.
* Instrumentation for evaluating the performance of a full missile system.
* Equipment for calibrating missile components.
In other boxes inspectors found personal items apparently intended for North Korean workers, including cookbooks in Korean, Korean spices, pickles and acupuncture sets. A separate cargo bay contained rocket nose cones, stacks of metal pipe and heavy-duty presses used for milling high-grade steel. Inspectors found a plate-bending machine capable of rolling thick metal sheets; toroidal air bottles used to guide warheads after separation from a missile; and theodolites, devices that measure missile trajectories.
It was an intriguing mix, far different from other previously seized shipments because it contained more than just missile engines and spare parts. A technical committee of Indian missile experts concluded that the equipment was "unimpeachable and irrefutable evidence" of a plan to transfer not just missiles, but missile-making capability. The cargo "points to one and only one end-use, namely the assembling of missiles and manufacture of the parts and subassemblies of surface to surface missiles," the technical panel wrote in a report.
But more interesting by far to the investigators were the documents: box after box of engineering drawings, blueprints, notebooks, textbooks and reports.
The blueprints were kept inside numbered plastic jackets and wrapped in brown paper. Some of the packets were labeled, in English, "Scud B" or "Scud C." Nearly all the drawings showed rockets or sections of rockets, accompanied by notes and mathematical formulas handwritten in Korean.
Native Korean speakers were brought in for translation, a process that continued long after the cargo was transported to New Delhi and the vessel and its crew were released. The analysis was slowed by yet another language barrier: The documents were filled with a unique kind of technical jargon invented by North Korean scientists to replace scientific terms in Russian or Chinese. Over time, the investigation yielded a trove of new information about North Korea's weapons program -- details that India later shared with friendly governments.
"The CIA went to town on those blueprints," said Greg Thielmann, a retired director of the State Department's office on strategic, proliferation and military issues in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. "They used them to make full mock-ups of missiles, complete with decals."
For U.S. officials, the blueprints provided a rare look at the inner workings of North Korea's missile industry, the focus of much of the contention between the United States and North Korea since the 1980s. Successive U.S. administrations have condemned North Korea's missile sales to such countries as Iran and Syria. Fears of advanced North Korean designs capable of reaching the U.S. mainland were heightened by the launch on Aug. 31, 1998, of a three-stage missile. The first stage splashed down in the Sea of Japan, the second crossed Japan's main island and a third broke up and traveled 3,450 miles downrange, falling into the Pacific Ocean. This ambitious test helped fuel the drive for a U.S. missile defense shield.
The Scud B and Scud C designs found on the Kuwolsan were from older North Korean missile programs, which in turn were derived from Soviet missile designs of the 1950s. One Indian government official who studied the blueprints described the science as "old and dated," though he added: "It still works."
"It may be your grandmother's technology," he said, "but grandmother still kicks."
The Kuwolsan's cargo did not, by itself, include everything needed for missile production, suggesting that there may have been earlier shipments, and perhaps later ones. "This was a slice in time of a technology transfer from North Korea to Libya," said Timothy V. McCarthy, a missile expert and senior analyst at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies who has examined some of the blueprints and other evidence.
"As an intelligence find it was unbelievable, because it helps us learn how they learn," McCarthy said. "That's so important because it gives you an idea of how capable they are of progressing to more advanced missiles. It also gives us insight into the most troubling part of proliferation: when one country attempts to transfer technology to another. Once Libya can make its own missiles, you can't stop them."
A striking feature of the cargo was the high proportion of foreign-made parts and machines, many of which still bore country-of-origin markings from Japan or China. Some analysts who saw the data were intrigued by design plans for a third type of missile, which the documents do not name. Weapons analysts described it as a modified Scud, altered to increase the range. "It uses an engine that we haven't seen, one that isn't used on any missile currently fielded by North Korea," McCarthy said. "It shows that there are still parts of North Korea's missile program we still haven't figured out yet."
With the modifications, the missile was advertised as having a range of roughly 500 miles. Such a missile in Libyan hands, weapon experts noted, would give Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi something he has long professed to covet: the ability to strike Israel from his home turf.
In India, defense and intelligence officials said they were convinced that the Kuwolsan's cargo was intended for Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons and missile programs. The Kuwolsan's captain acknowledged under questioning that he had planned to stop in Karachi, the Pakistani port city less than 300 miles west of Kandla, before heading to the Suez Canal and Malta. North Korea is known to have supplied missile parts to Pakistan in the past.
But both U.S. and South Korean officials concluded that the cargo was intended for Libya, a conviction that grew stronger over time, said Gary Samore, the White House National Security Council's senior director for nonproliferation at the time the Kuwolsan was seized. In fact, U.S. officials viewed Libya's involvement as the single most surprising -- and disturbing -- aspect of the case.
Since the incident, European officials have twice intercepted other North Korean missile materials bound for Libya. In January 2000, British police disclosed the interception of 32 crates of missile parts -- mostly components of jet propulsion systems -- at London's Gatwick Airport as the parts were about to be flown to Malta, then on to Tripoli. Three months later, a 44-year-old Taiwanese businessman was arrested at Zurich's airport with three cast-iron parts for Scud missiles in his bags. The man, who was traveling to Libya, was released two months later and sent back to Taiwan. He told Swiss authorities he was only a courier and had no idea what the parts were used for.
"We were not fully aware of the extent of North Korea's dealings with Libya until that ship was intercepted," said Samore, now a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Ties between the two countries were judged to be relatively modest until the Kuwolsan incident, Samore said, when North Korea suddenly was caught sending Libya a "full production kit for missiles."
Scuds for Yemen
Last December, another ship and another destination drew attention to North Korean missile smuggling. The capture of the 3,500-ton So San, intercepted in the Gulf of Aden as it ferried 15 Scud missiles to Yemen, showed that North Korea, nearly four years after the Kuwolsan search, had seen no reason to change.
The So San's captain, Kang Chol Ryong, was confident enough to sail without a flag, and with the ship's name and identifying markings covered up, when the vessel began its southward journey across the South China Sea in November. The ship's manifest listed a single entry -- 40,000 sacks of cement -- but spy agencies had known of its hidden cargo before it left its home port of Nampo.
On Dec. 9, the Spanish naval frigate Navarra, part of an international flotilla then patrolling the Arabian Sea looking for Taliban fighters fleeing Afghanistan, spotted the So San about 600 miles off the coast of Yemen. When confronted, Kang refused to identify his vessel and even tried to outrun the larger Navarra.
"The Navarra fired warning shots ahead of the ship; still he refused to stop, and continued sailing at the same course and speed," Javier Romero, a commander in the Spanish navy, wrote in a report on the incident. Sharpshooters from the Navarra then blasted away the ship's mast cables to allow Spanish special operations troops to rappel onto the deck from a helicopter, the report said.
The So San's crew gave up without a fight, and within hours U.S. Navy Seals and explosives experts had joined the Spanish sailors in moving sacks of cement covering the real cargo: 15 Scud missiles complete with high-explosive warheads. Elsewhere in the hold the searchers found two dozen tanks containing a rocket-fuel additive and nearly 100 other barrels of unidentified chemicals.
Despite the high-profile interception, the Bush administration decided to release the ship and its cargo because Yemen is a strategic partner in the U.S. war against the al Qaeda terrorist organization. A few Scuds, administration officials explained, were judged as not worth the price of losing a critical ally.
The So San returned to North Korea and remains in service, but is closely tracked by U.S. intelligence agencies. Reports of other ships and other suspicious cargo have surfaced since then. Just last week, the 6,500-ton North Korean freighter Be Gaehung was seized in Taiwan's Kaohsiung harbor after customs officials discovered crates containing 2,200 tons of aluminum powder, which can be used in manufacturing missiles.
The Kuwolsan, meanwhile, vanished after it and its crew were released by India in 2000, and only recently has its fate come to light. According to shipping experts at Lloyd's maritime division in London, the vessel's name was quietly changed in the summer of that year, to Sun Grisan 9.
As of last week, the renamed ship was still in active service, and was last reported headed to the Somalian capital, Mogadishu.
The nature of its cargo was unknown.
Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.
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