A North Korean ship suspected of carrying illicit weapons cruised through waters off Shanghai on Tuesday en route to Myanmar, a news report said, as regional military officials and a US destroyer was keeping a close eye on the vessel.
Washington's top military commander in South Korea, meanwhile, warned that the communist regime is bolstering its guerrilla warfare capacity.
Gen Walter Sharp, who commands the 28,500 US troops positioned in South Korea, said the North could employ roadside bombs and other guerrilla tactics if fighting breaks out again on the Korean peninsula. The two Koreas technically remain at war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953. North Korea is believed to have begun boosting its urban, nighttime and special operation capabilities in the wake of the US-led war in Iraq, South Korea's Defense Ministry said. After the US invasion of Iraq, North Korea claimed it would be the next target.
With 1.2 million troops, North Korea's army is one of the world's largest. Some 180,000 are special operation forces. Last Wednesday, a North Korean-flagged vessel left the port of Nampo and was being trailed by a US destroyer, a USofficial said. It the first ship being monitored under the UN sanctions imposed earlier this month following North Korea's defiant underground nuclear test in May. The new resolution seeks to strengthen efforts to stop North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile programs and selling its technology.
The Kang Nam, accused of transporting illicit goods in the past, is believed to be carrying banned small arms to Myanmar, a South Korean intelligence official said on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information. However, analysts say a high-seas interception, a move North Korea has said it would consider an act of war, is unlikely. The resolution calls on UN member states to inspect North Korean vessels if they have "reasonable grounds" to believe that its cargo contains banned weapons or materials. But it must first get the consent of the nation whose flag the ship is flying, in this case, North Korea's.
The North, however, is unlikely to allow any inspection of its cargo, said Hong Hyun-ik, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul.
If Pyongyang refuses, authorities must direct the vessel to a port. UN members have been ordered not to provided suspected ships with services such as fuel.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China will "strictly observe" and implement the resolution. He urged other nations to also heed the UN guidelines.
"Under the current circumstances, we call upon all parties to refrain from acts that might escalate the tension," he said Tuesday.
Singapore, the world's busiest port and a top refueling center, said officials would "act appropriately" if asked to confront a North Korean ship believed to be carrying banned cargo. "Singapore takes seriously the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery and related materials," a Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman said Tuesday on condition of anonymity according to ministry policy. "If the allegation is true, Singapore will act appropriately."
The South Korean broadcaster YTN said the ship was traveling in waters 200 nautical miles (230 miles; 370 kilometers) southeast of Shanghai at a speed of about 10 knots (11.5 miles per hour; 18.5 kilometers per hour).
The Kang Nam is expected to dock at Myanmar's Thilawa port, some 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Yangon, in the next few days, according to the Irrawaddy, an online magazine operated by independent exiled journalists from Myanmar, citing an unidentified port official.
North Korea is believed to have sold guns, artillery and other small weapons to Myanmar, said Kim Jin-moo, an analyst at Seoul's state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
An American destroyer, the USS John S McCain, is relatively close to the North Korean vessel but had no orders to intercept it, a senior military official told The Associated Press last week on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, the US and North Korea's neighbors were discussing how to deal with the increasingly defiant country amid signs it may be preparing a long-range missile test.
Ambassador Kathleen Stephens said the US "remains willing and eager to engage North Korea" through diplomacy. But she said Washington and its allies have begun outlining defensive measures should the North continue with provocative acts.
"We're committed to do what is necessary to protect" the American people and their allies, she said at a Seoul forum also attended by ambassadors from China, Japan and Russia. The vice defense ministers of Japan and South Korea also met on Tuesday in Seoul, nuclear envoys from South Korea and Russia were slated to hold talks on Wednesday in Moscow and a US defense official was in the region for talks this week in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo.
Associated Press writers Grant Peck in Bangkok, Jae-soon Chang in Seoul and Alex Kennedy in Singapore contributed to this report.