July 03, 2009

Maritime Security: Refusing to learn from history

Two decades ago, in 1999 and a couple of days before it was due to dock in Kandla, Russian Intelligence tipped off India about the MV Ku Vol San, a North Korean ship bound for Malta via Singapore, Kandla and Karachi. Indian intelligence agencies put the ship under surveillance in the Arabian Sea, and she was searched by customs on arrival Kandla on June 18. At the end of a dramatic operation, with the Korean crew resisting, Indian authorities found nothing. They were about to call of the search when the Russians came up with specific information on the cargo last minute, when, found hidden amongst a consignment of sugar, were 148 boxes manifested as ‘machinery and water refining equipment’. In reality, according to a statement from the Ministry of External Affairs, the cargo included "special material and equipment, components for guidance system, blueprints, drawings and instruction manuals for the production of such (ballistic) missiles."

This cargo, of course, was bound for Pakistan, and constituted a part of the deadly barter system of nuclear material vs. delivery systems that have existed between North Korea and Pakistan and beyond for almost twenty years, thanks to the AQ Khan network. The fact that many ‘indigenous’ Pakistani missile delivery systems are actually North Korean was well known by RAW and DRI in India even before this incident. The Ghauri is a copy of North Korea's NodongI missile.

The United States knew this too, though they chose not to believe India before the Ku Vol San incident for their own blinkered reasons. Typically, the US ‘confirmed’ Pakistani nuclear proliferation only three years later, in 2002, when the New York Times reported that Pakistan supplied equipment to North Korea, including possibly gas centrifuges used to create weapons grade uranium, in deals that began in the early 1990s and continued well into the Musharraf regime and beyond the 9/11 catastrophe. The Bush administration, seeking nonexistent WMD’s in Iraq, ignored the fact that two Pakistani nuclear scientists were engaged with the Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. “Despite copious intelligence reports, successive US administrations have been coy about bearing down on Pakistan,” one Washington think tank said.

Fast forward to today, twenty years later. Even as I write this, the US navy is shadowing another North Korean freighter, the Kang Nam 1. She left Pyongyang on June 17 and is believed to be heading for Burma, apparently carrying an illegal cargo of weaponry. Reports conflict as to whether the cargo includes nuclear material and missile hardware or is restricted to just small arms. The US Government has said, so far, that it will not use force to inspect the ship. Meanwhile, a provocative King Jong II, the North Korean dictator, says that North Korea will fire a missile ‘in the direction of Hawaii’ on the American independence day, July 4. North Korea has also said it would consider interception of the 2000 tonne Kang Nam 1 an act of war. A UN resolution post the recent North Korean underground nuclear tests bans North Korean trafficking in nuclear or conventional weaponry, and calls upon United Nations members to search North Korean ships if there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect that banned cargo is aboard.

If the US Navy destroyer shadowing the freighter asks to inspect the Kang Nam and North Korea refuses, the U.N. authorises that the ship must be directed to a port of North Korea’s choice for inspection.

In separate but related developments, amateur photographs confirm that North Korea is helping Myanmar with ‘tunnel technology’. Built secretly over the last ten years near the new Burmese capital Naypyidaw, these underground tunnels are large enough for trucks to drive through and can house and feed up to 600 people for several months. Although the purpose of these tunnels is unknown, analysts believe that these are bunkers for the Burmese generals to flee to in an emergency.

Myanmar and North Korea have had a stormy past; Myanmar broke off relations after North Korean agents attacked and killed visiting South Korean diplomats in 1983. However, criticism and sanctions against both countries for their belligerent intransigence over the last many years have brought them closer together; North Korea is said to supply arms regularly to Burma.

What is surprising is that, despite the potential repercussions on the nation’s security, the Indian administration and media have ignored the strange case of the Kang Nam. Not surprising, actually: we have paid the price of being too soft, over the years, on the Pakistani ‘death by a thousand cuts’ strategy. If we are not careful, we will pay a price in the future for the Chinese ‘string of pearls strategy’ too: a plan that wants to encircle India with elements hostile to it. Chinese links with all the usual suspects, including Myanmar and North Korea, are well known, recent Chinese tough talk to Pyongyang notwithstanding.

The Kang Nam can be, potentially, a grave threat to Indian security. The Indian Government needs to say so publicly and act sharply. We need to start acting tougher; a signal needs to be sent out that India, in line with its greater global status, will act appropriately and legitimately to meet the demands of its own national security, and that the Indian Navy will patrol our Oceans more effectively. If this involves being aggressively involved in the UN resolution against North Korea, so be it.

As events in Pakistan have shown, American self interest does not often coincide with ours. Why, then, do we refuse to learn? Why do we continue to outsource our maritime and national security to them?

It is time India become a player in the game and not just an innocent bystander.