By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
Published: February 25, 2010
UNITED NATIONS — Two shipping containers loaded at a Chinese port and bound on a ship for the Congo Republic carrying what the manifest called “bulldozers” were found to be transporting North Korean tank parts and other military equipment in violation of international sanctions, diplomats at the United Nations said Thursday.
South Africa, which made the discovery in November, presented a rough summary of the episode in a two-page letter sent this week to the special Security Council committee focused on sanctions againstNorth Korea.
China is North Korea’s largest trading partner, and one unanswered question about the episode involves how the parts escaped notice when they were loaded behind sacks of rice at the northeastern Chinese port of Dalian.
China’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately return a telephone call and an e-mail message seeking comment.
China supported a unanimous Security Council decision last June imposing financial restrictions and an arms embargo against North Korea after it conducted a second nuclear test, which was prohibited under United Nations resolutions.
The cargo seizure, which took place at the South African port of Durban, represents at least the third time that North Korean arms shipments have been halted under the new sanctions imposed last year.
Security Council diplomats, anticipating tough negotiations over a new sanctions regime against Iran, noted that a variety of countries — the United Arab Emirates, Thailand and now South Africa — had been involved in seizing North Korean shipments, and they said that was an indication that sanctions could work internationally.
The two containers containing parts for T-54 and T-55 tanks, shipped by a North Korean company, were loaded in Dalian onto a container ship operated by a French company and sent to Malaysia, where they were transferred, according to diplomats, who read details from the confidential report.
The ship stopped to refuel in Durban on its way to the Congo Republic, but it was initially turned away. After it left Durban, however, South African officials ordered it back to port, where they found the military equipment hidden behind stacks of rice, the report said. They could not confirm the value of the shipment, but estimated it at $770,000.
The two containers are now in a secure storage area in Durban port, the report said, while an inquiry continues. Investigators have been contacting every country involved in the shipping route or transport and asking them to explain what occurred.
The sanctions resolution passed by the United Nations extended the authority for countries to search any ships, including those on the high seas, if they were suspected of carrying weapons from North Korea.
In December, Thailand seized an airplane with a crew of five from Belarus and Kazakhstan that contained 35 tons of North Korean weapons, including rockets, fuses, rocket-propelled grenades and missile components.
A document on board the plane indicated that the weapons were headed to Iran, Thai officials said, but it was unclear whether that was the flight’s final destination.
The shipment was seized while the airplane was refueling in Thailand. Thailand deported the crew this month.