North Korea’s cruise to nowhere

During the past two weeks, diplomats and experts have continued to watch nervously as a U.S. destroyer has shadowed the North Korean transport ship Kang Nam 1. Now, the ship has apparently turned around — and nobody in the U.S. defense establishment knows what to make of it. U.S. officials said Tuesday that a North ...

584190_090630_kangnam5.jpg
584190_090630_kangnam5.jpg

During the past two weeks, diplomats and experts have continued to watch nervously as a U.S. destroyer has shadowed the North Korean transport ship Kang Nam 1. Now, the ship has apparently turned around -- and nobody in the U.S. defense establishment knows what to make of it.

U.S. officials said Tuesday that a North Korean ship has turned around and is headed back toward the north where it came from, after being tracked for more than a week by American Navy vessels on suspicion of carrying illegal weapons.

During the past two weeks, diplomats and experts have continued to watch nervously as a U.S. destroyer has shadowed the North Korean transport ship Kang Nam 1. Now, the ship has apparently turned around — and nobody in the U.S. defense establishment knows what to make of it.

U.S. officials said Tuesday that a North Korean ship has turned around and is headed back toward the north where it came from, after being tracked for more than a week by American Navy vessels on suspicion of carrying illegal weapons.

The move keeps the U.S. and the rest of the international community guessing: Where is the Kang Nam going? Does its cargo include materials banned by a new U.N. anti-proliferation resolution?[…]

The U.N. resolution allows the international community to ask for permission to board and search any suspect ship on the seas. If permission for inspection is refused, authorities can ask for an inspection in whichever nation where the ship pulls into port.

North Korea has said it would consider any interception of its ships a declaration of war.

Two officials had said earlier in the day Tuesday that the Kang Nam had been moving very slowly in recent days, something that could signal it was trying to conserve fuel.

They said they didn’t know what the turnaround of the ship means, nor what prompted it.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said Sunday that Washington was “following the progress of that ship very closely,” but she would not say whether the U.S. would confront the Kang Nam.

Even before the unexpected reverse in course, some in Washington were beginning to doubt the whole operation:

Inside the White House, they are beginning to call it “The Cruise to Nowhere.”

For more than two weeks now, White House officials have been receiving frequent updates on a rusting North Korean ship, the Kang Nam 1, as it makes its way dead-slow across the South China Sea. Earlier this month, Mr. Obama’s aides thought the aging hulk – with its long rap sheet for surreptitious deliveries of missiles and arms – would be the first test of a United Nations Security Council resolution giving countries the right to hail suspect shipments, and order them to a nearby port for inspection.

But now some top officials in the Obama administration are beginning to wonder whether Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, ordered the Kang Nam 1 out on a fishing expedition – in hopes that a new American president will be his first catch.

“The whole thing just doesn’t add up,” said one senior administration official who has been tracking the cargo ship’s lazy summer journey. “My worry is that we make a big demand about seeing the cargo, and then there’s a tense standoff, and when it’s all over we discover that old man Kim set us up to look like George Bush searching for nonexistent W.M.D.”

With this kind of “made-you-look” trickery, perhaps Kim Jong Il has been taking lessons from Lucy van Pelt.

KHIN MAUNG WIN/AFP/Getty Images

James Downie is an editorial researcher at FP.

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