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Global Trail of Dead Scientists Price of Illicit Pyongyang-Syria Weapons Collaboration

23 Jun

Global Trail of Dead Scientists Price of Illicit Pyongyang-Syria Weapons Collaboration

Deadly Spy War Erupts When Israel Views the Two Pariah States Have Crossed a ‘Red Line’

BY NATE THAYER

JUNE 20, 2013

NKNews.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. –

In July 2007, an explosion rocked the al-Safir chemical weapons and ballistic missile research  facility buried in cavernous underground tunnels dug under a mountain near Allepo in Northwestern Syria. Under the command of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center,  Syria’s largest and most secret military facility was constructed by North Korean specialists in the 1990’s.

Working in the pre-dawn cool desert temperatures, the blast killed North Korean missile engineers attempting to weaponize North Korean supplied Scud-C missiles with mustard gas chemical warheads  at a North Korean built weapons development base near Allepo.

photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrians walk through the rubble at the scene where multiple explosions hit the center of Aleppo, Syria on October 3, 2012.  Read more: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2012/12/13/Scud-attacks-signal-Syrian-regime-alarm/UPI-97451355420939/#ixzz2X0Vgz6Ru

photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrians walk through the rubble at the scene where multiple explosions hit the center of Aleppo, Syria on October 3, 2012.

The mysterious explosion released VX and Sarin nerve agents and mustard gas into the atmosphere, killing at least 15 Syrian military and chemical warfare specialists, “dozens” of Iranians engineers, and at least three North Korean ballistic missile experts.

Syrian defense sources told Jane’s Defense Weekly that during a 26 July “test to weaponize a 500 km ‘Scud C’ with a mustard gas warhead, an explosion occurred in a laboratory adjacent to a chemical agent storage facility” at the most heavily gaurded military camp in Syria.

While Syrian investigators privately determined the blast was an act of sabotage, one senior Israeli intelligence official told Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, a top authority on Israeli’s secret services, that it was “a wonderful accident.’

Less than two months later, in September, 2007, Israeli F-16 fighter jets destroyed a North Korean-designed and constructed plutonium nuclear weapons plant in the remote northeastern Syrian Desert. That assault killed an estimated 10 North Korean nuclear scientists working at the secret nuclear facility near the Euphrates river.

North Korean No. 125 Factory, or “Pyongyang Pig Factory” as it is called by North Korea, in Pyongyang, produces surface-to-ship SCUD missiles. This photo was taken by a secret Burmese military delegation. The factory has also hosted missile buyers from the Middle East, including Syria.

North Korean No. 125 Factory, or “Pyongyang Pig Factory” as it is called by North Korea, in Pyongyang, produces surface-to-ship SCUD missiles. This photo was taken by a secret Burmese military delegation. The factory has also hosted missile buyers from the Middle East, including Syria.

But the two incidents were not the first time North Korean and Syrian military scientists had died during the quarter century the two pariah nations have methodically collaborated.

And it would not be the last.

The blast at the al-Safir chemical warfare and ballistic missile development facility which was built with crucial North Korean collaboration in July 2007, and the destruction of the nuclear bomb making plant weeks later by an air assault of Israeli F-16 fighter jets, are just two in a series of occasions when Syrian and North Korean clandestine operatives have died working on Damascus’s illicit WMD arsenal.

The Tirshan military museum in Damascus buily and designed by North Korea. The artist renderings are also created by the North Korean propaganda artists in Pyongyang

The Tirshan military museum in Damascus buily and designed by North Korea. The artist renderings are also created by the North Korean propaganda artists in Pyongyang

The clandestine weapons collaboration between North Korea and Damascus in recent years has left a trail of bodies from Moscow to the Syrian desert to North Korea in a deadly game of spy versus spy hidden in the shadows of the Middle East.

A mysterious blast near the Chinese border in North Korea nine years ago was one of many incidents in which key personnel have met violent ends cooperating with Syria in developing weapons of mass destruction.

SYRIA AND THE RYONGCHON ‘BOMB’

In early 2004, the United States National Security Agency detected a curious, unusually high cluster of sustained electronic communications traffic between a remote location in the northeast Syrian Desert and Pyongyang. The NSA shared the information with Israel’s military signals intelligence and cypher department, Unit 8200, which designated the information for priority monitoring.

A few months later, on April 22, 2004, an explosion destroyed a train and decimated the small northwestern North Korean town of Ryongchon, in the heart of North Korea’s missile, chemical warfare, and nuclear weapons industrial production infrastructure, as the freight train headed to the coastal shipping port of Nampo with its highly secret cargo.

The explosion, measuring 3.6 on the Richter scale and detected at international earthquake monitoring stations in Russia, Japan and the United States, was so devastating that Pyongyang appealed for emergency international humanitarian aid to address the crisis–a highly unusual public action by the secretive regime. The International Committee of the Red Cross was allowed to visit the area and reported 40% of the town had been flattened, more than 160 people killed and 1,300 injured, destroying thousands of buildings and leaving a crater 72 meters deep at the Ryongchon railway station.

Photo of crater after explosion, Ryongchon 2004 | Picture credit: David Hill, ECHO

Photo of crater after explosion, Ryongchon 2004 | Picture credit: David Hill, ECHO

Nine hours earlier, Kim Jong-il, the ruler of the world’s most closed and destabilizing nation, had passed through the station in his private rail-car on the return from a visit to his allies in Beijing.

Pyongyang officially said a train carrying fertilizer containing ammonium nitrate and petroleum accidentally came into contact with electrical wires and exploded, but in the years since a clearer portrait of intrigue has emerged suggesting intentional sabotage was responsible for the massive explosion.

In fact, the train was destroyed by a mobile telephone remote control device activated by unknown persons nearby, intelligence agencies have since concluded.

Never acknowledged is that more than a dozen Syrian ballistic missile weapons scientists and technicians employed by the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, the agency in charge of Syria’s covert weapons of mass destruction development program, were killed in the mysterious blast.

The Syrian weapons specialists were accompanying a highly clandestine cargo of missile and other components to the North Korean port of Nampo, destined for Syria’s weapons of mass destruction development program operated by the SSRC.

Destroyed train where 12 Syrian missile scientists were killed in Ryongchon, North Korea April 22, 2004

Destroyed train where 12 Syrian missile scientists were killed in Ryongchon, North Korea April 22, 2004

North Korean military wearing chemical hazard protective suits removed debris and the Syrian bodies from the scene. Within days, Syrian military aircraft arrived under the auspices of delivering humanitarian aid to the civilian blast victims, and on May 1 departed with the bodies of the dead Syrian SSRC employees.

The approximately one dozen dead Syrians were claimed by the SSRC, and the Syrian and North Korean military personnel who transported the bodies to the Syrian aircraft were also wearing hazardous protective suits.

By mid-May, North Korean security officials had found a damaged cellphone still wrapped in duct tape near the explosion and abruptly halted the countries entire nascent mobile phone system, confiscating the 10,000 mobile devices in use in the first national cellphone network, established only months before.

North Korea did not allow mobile phone use in the country for another five years.

Chemical weapons site in Syria where North Korean technical advisers are based ( Map by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Chemical weapons site in Syria where North Korean technical advisers are based ( Map by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

In the period after the blast, Israeli and other intelligence services noted more than a dozen trips to Pyongyang by senior officials of the SSRC involved in their missile, chemical warfare and nuclear weapons development program.

On May 4, Sankei Sinbun newspaper in Japan first hinted at the blast not being an accident, reporting ten Syrians working for the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center were killed “accompanying ‘large equipment’ and that the damage from the explosion was greatest in the portion of the train they occupied.”

The paper reported that North Korean military wearing protective suits responded and “removed material only from the Syrians’ section of the train.”

But the paper offered no speculation as to the cause of the blast, saying it was “not known whether the cargo was the source of the explosion or whether it had exploded following a separate explosion on another section of the train.”

The bodies of the Syrians were “taken home on May 1 by a Syrian aircraft, which had come to Pyongyang to deliver aid supplies.”

Within weeks several foreign governments had privately confirmed the Syrian plane transporting the bodies back to Damascus.

“Syrian and DPRK medical and military personnel who were involved in transporting [the Syrians and other victims] were also reportedly wearing protective suits similar to those worn by the DPRK military personnel who arrived on the scene immediately after the accident.”

According to KCNA “in connection with the explosion at Ryongchon Railway Station…Emergency relief goods came to the DPRK from China, Russia and Syria at the end of April.”

North Korean officers visit Syrian government wounded soldiers in Damascus hospital in 2012 (Photo: SANA/North Korean Leadership Watch/Michael Madden)

North Korean officers visit Syrian government wounded soldiers in Damascus hospital in 2012 (Photo: SANA/North Korean Leadership Watch/Michael Madden)

Three weeks after the accident, North Korea cut all telephone lines to the rest of the world, likely to either to prevent foreign reporting or to shield their own population from learning news about the accident

On May 18, MiddleEastNewsline reported that a “North Korean missile shipment to Syria was halted when a train collision in that Asian country destroyed the missile cargo and killed about a dozen Syrian technicians,” citing U.S. government sources. “The officials said the technicians were accompanying a train car full of missile components and other equipment from a facility near the Chinese border to a North Korea port.”

“The way it was supposed work was that the train car full of missiles and components would have arrived at the port and some would have been shipped to Syria while others would have been transported by air,” an U.S. official was quoted by MiddleEastNewsline.

The source stated that the plane came to bring the relief supply from Syria and returned with the bodies. The bodies were claimed by Syrian Technical Research Center(Centre d’Etudes et de Recherche Scientific: CERS)

The US official said the North Korean train cargo was also believed to have contained tools for the production of ballistic missiles.  North Korea has sold Syria the extended-range Scud C and Scud D missiles, according to reports by Middle East Newsline.

Officials said the North Korean shipment to Syria was not meant to have contained chemical or biological weapons.  Foreign relief workers from the International Committee for the Red Cross and the United Nations who surveyed the scene at Ryongchon the day after the blast did not report any chemical contamination.

“Syrians were wearing protective suits at the time of the accident and in the middle of transporting large packaged equipment. At the explosion, a lot of N. Korean Scud-D missiles and (rocket) propellant went off.”

Foreign intelligence sources have confirmed to NKNews that the missiles were assembled at ‘Shin-eum-ri Factory’ near Pyongyang, the rocket engines were made at ‘January 8th Factory’ in Kaechon, the missile bodies were manufactured at ‘No. 26 Factory’ in Namchondong, and chemical warheads at ‘Namheung Chemical Factory’. These components were being transported on the train at the time of the explosion.

The Tae-sung Machine Factory (a.k.a., Chamjin Missile Factory) is North Korea's primary manufacturer of ballistic missiles, conducting final assembly of components and sub-systems it has produced or from those supplied to it from other facilities and sources. While the primary responsibility for the development of the Taepodong and Unha systems lies with the No. 7 Factory of the Second Academy of Natural Sciences (SANS), the Tae-sung Machine Factory has been associated with the production phase of these systems. Includes satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe's Analysis Center. (KPA Journal/Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.)

The Tae-sung Machine Factory (a.k.a., Chamjin Missile Factory) is North Korea’s primary manufacturer of ballistic missiles, conducting final assembly of components and sub-systems it has produced or from those supplied to it from other facilities and sources. While the primary responsibility for the development of the Taepodong and Unha systems lies with the No. 7 Factory of the Second Academy of Natural Sciences (SANS), the Tae-sung Machine Factory has been associated with the production phase of these systems. Includes satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe’s Analysis Center. (KPA Journal/Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.)

But other officials said the North Korean shipment did not include chemical weapons, noting foreign rescue crews and humanitarian aid workers at the train explosion site did not report any chemical contamination.

Japan’s Kyodo News cited diplomatic sources in Vienna saying the explosion measured 3.6 on the Richter scale, a blast equaling about 800 tons of TNT — eight times that announced by North Korea. The blast statistics were compiled by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. Korean Central News Agency had reported that the power of the blast was that of 100 tons of dynamite.

The CTBTO said the explosion was observed using seismological observation stations built to detect nuclear tests in Korea, Japan, the United States and Russia.

On May 19 all cell phones were confiscated in Pyongyang, and the next day the ban was imposed nationwide.

In secret U.S. embassy in Seoul cables from 2009 released by WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats reported Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun, who met North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2007, told U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens in 2009, “Kim believed that the explosion at Ryongchon Station was a failed attempt to assassinate him.”

Hyun was quoted in the U.S. embassy documents saying the explosion “was revealed through mobile phones” and “the introduction of mobile phones in the North was markedly delayed.”

The Chinese Chongqing Evening News in Szechuan province reported “analysts believe that the catastrophic consequences of this North Korean train explosion followed from an attempted plan to target North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il for assassination” saying “clues collected along the tracks indicated that unhealthy elements had used mobile phones. For fear that internal information would leak [to the outside], the mobile phone business would be stopped.”

The order to halt mobile phone service came “directly from the Korean National Defense Committee” ordering “that previously held mobile phones confiscated.”

By 2008, diplomats had concluded that the reports of dead Syrian scientists were true. The London Sunday times reported that “Diplomats based in Pyongyang have said they now believe reports that about a dozen Syrian technicians were killed” in the blast.

“Their bodies were flown home by a Syrian military cargo aircraft which was spotted on May 1, 2004 at Pyongyang.”

The Times said “Diplomats said the Sankei Shimbun report was now believed to be accurate.”

Large portrait of founders of Syria and North Korea at the North Korean constructed and designed Tirshan War memorial museum in Damascus

Large portrait of founders of Syria and North Korea at the North Korean constructed and designed Tirshan War memorial museum in Damascus

On May 24, the South Korean paper Chosun Ilbo reported that North Korean security police believed the explosion was an assassination attempt against leader Kim Jong Il, quoting a North Korean businessman on a visit to China as saying “The North Korean National Security Agency has investigated the incident since it took place and concluded that rebellious forces had plotted the explosions targeting the exclusive train of Kim Jong-il.  The security agency, in particular, gained evidence that cell phones had been used in triggering the explosion and reported to the North Korean leader that the use of cell phones should be banned for the sake of the leader’s safety.”

The paper quoted a defector in China saying  “It doesn’t seem to be a temporary measure, because even handsets have been conscripted following the cell phone use ban.”

Several years later, British author Gordon Thomas, in a book on the history of the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, wrote that Israel was aware “that dozens of Syrian nuclear technicians were in a compartment adjoining a sealed wagon” and that “the Syrians had arrived in North Korea to collect the fissionable material stored in the wagon.”

He wrote that “all of the technicians were killed in the train explosion” and “their bodies were flown to Syria in lead-encased coffins aboard a Syrian military plane” and that Mossad believed that “North Korean soldiers in anti-contamination suits (who) collected wreckage and sprayed the area…were trying to recover weapons-grade plutonium.”

In the wake of the explosion, Thomas wrote, “Mossad tracked about a dozen trips by Syrian military officers and scientists to Pyongyang, where they met with high-ranking North Korean officials.”

Western intelligence officials, who say they do not know what caused the massive blast, do confirm that the Syrian military technicians were working for the SSRC, and were in North Korea carrying out the purchase of ballistic missile systems designed to be equipped with chemical warheads.

“DPRK military-related personnel wearing protective suits arrived on the scene immediately after the explosion and removed debris only from that section of the train where the Syrian group had been aboard,” according to the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun on May 4, 2004.

Syrian military aircraft arrived within days under the auspices of delivering humanitarian aid to the civilian blast victims, but departed on May 1 with the bodies of the dead Syrian SSRC employees. The Syrian and North Korean military and specialists who transported the bodies to the Syrian aircraft also were wearing hazardous protective suits like those of the first North Korean responders to the blast scene.

NUCLEAR COOPERATION

While North Korean-Syrian military cooperation was known to Western intelligence services since the 1990s, North Korean-Syrian nuclear cooperation was not identified until early 2007, only months before an Israeli airstrike destroyed Syria’s nuclear reactor in a remote desert region near al-Kibar in northeast Syria.

When Bashar Assad took power in 2000 after his father died, Israel began updating its intelligence file on the young leader who had just assumed power upon the death of his father.

Analysts noted a stream of high-level Syrian and North Korean officials responsible for, according to the Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman.

But the information was dismissed by the Mossad, Israeli’s legendary intelligence service, as implausible.

In the annual CIA briefings to Congress on WMD proliferation, the CIA did not list North Korea as a supplier of nuclear technology between 2001 and 2006.

But intelligence had begun to mount after 2001 that nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria had in fact begun “probably as early as 1997”,according to later CIA conclusions reported to congress.

Mounting evidence in the following years, in addition to the interception of an unusual amount of electronic communication between a remote Syrian desert location and Pyongyang and numerous reciprocal visits of high level nuclear officials and scientists between Syria and North Korea, was a stream of North Korean procurement of nuclear technology which they delivered to Syria, and materials gathered by Israeli intelligence in break-ins to a Syrian official’s London hotel room, where the contents of his computers were seized.

North Korean  Chon Chibu, nuclear engineer in charge of the Yongbyan nuclear processing plant with the head of Syrian Atomic Energy Agency in Syria. Note Syrian license plates on vehicle in background (Photo CIA)

North Korean Chon Chibu, nuclear engineer in charge of the Yongbyan nuclear processing plant with the head of Syrian Atomic Energy Agency in Syria. Note Syrian license plates on vehicle in background (Photo CIA)

This took place in December 2006, when a senior Syrian intelligence official came to London under a false name. Mossad agents broke into his hotel room and copied the contents of his computer.

What they found astonished them.

There were blueprints of a nuclear facility and scores of photographs of the nuclear plant under construction, apparently in the Syrian Desert.

One picture showed North Korea’s top nuclear scientist, Chon Chibu, who was in charge of North Korea’s plutonium nuclear fuel processing site at Yongybon, posing with Syria’s Atomic Energy Agency director, Ibrahim Othman. The license plates of the vehicles in the background of the two men clearly showed the rendezvous took place in Syria.

In February of 2007, a senior Iranian general attached to the Republican Guard Command defected to the west. He proved a goldmine of information. Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Ali-Reza Asgari revealed to the CIA and Mossad agents who debriefed him a bombshell of alarming information: Iran was financing a nuclear facility near completion in Syria that was designed and constructed by North Korea.

The defection was top secret and Asgari soon disappeared. Iran announced he had been “kidnapped by the Mossad and probably killed.” In fact, Asgari was whisked to a U.S. military base in Germany where he provided key details before being given political asylum.

ISRAELI STRIKE

In August 2007, Israeli commandos dressed as Syrian soldiers were inserted by helicopter into the remote northeastern Syrian Desert to the purported nuclear site near the Euphrates River. They collected samples which were brought back to Israel. Tests confirmed not only the presence of nuclear material, but the signature showed that it originated in North Korea.

Both Israel and Washington knew that there were North Korean specialists working at the site. “There are North Korean people there. There’s no question about that,” U.S. State Department official Andrew Semmel was quoted as saying in the aftermath of the attack.

That September 3, a North Korean ship, the Al Hamed, arrived at the Syrian port of Tartus with a cargo manifest claiming to be carrying cement. An Israeli agent was monitoring the ship and took photographs of the cargo. Israel contends the vessel was delivering key nuclear material for the plutonium weapons plant.

Three days later, and two months after the deadly blast at the Aleppo chemical weapons site, eight Israeli F-16 fighter jets mounted the stealth air strike on a top secret plutonium production nuclear weapons facility being built under contract by North Korea near al-Kibar .

Ten more North Korean nuclear scientists and technicians were killed in the Israeli assault.

The nearly completed North Korean-designed and built nuclear facility was the result of a secret pact signed by senior North Korean government officials with Assad in June 2002.

The estimated $2 billion nuclear weapons facility in Syria was partially financed by Iran.

North Korea was additionally paid with five annual deliveries of 100,000 tons of Syrian wheat, in a $120 million-deal personally signed by Assad, documents in the Syrian president’s handwriting show.

The bodies of the 10 North Korean nuclear advisers killed in the Israeli bombings were returned to North Korea in October.

In a secret April 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, then U.S. Secretary of State Condaleezza Rice wrote to State Department officials that Israel had destroyed the reactor that “Syria was clandestinely constructing, we judge with North Korean assistance.”

 http://www.fas.org/irp/news/2008/04/odni042408.pdf

Rice spoke of the fear that Washington had of publicizing the information: “We have delayed sharing this information with you, because our first concern was to prevent conflict. “We believe -based on strong evidence- that North Korea assisted Syria with the reactor,” Rice wrote. “The U.S. intelligence community conducted an intensive, months-long effort to confirm and corroborate the information Israel provided us on the reactor and to gather more details from our own sources and methods…our intelligence experts are confident that the facility the Israelis targeted was in fact a nuclear reactor of the same type North Korea built indigenously at its Yongbyon nuclear facility” and “we have good reason to believe this reactor was not intended for peaceful purposes.”

 <iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/yj62GRd0Te8?rel=0&#8243; frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

OVERCOMING SETBACK

Undeterred by either the military strike on the Syrian nuclear facility in September or the July explosions at the chemical weapons facility, North Korea and Syria exchanged high-level weapons delegations for urgent meetings immediately in September,  October, and November.

On September 10, 2007, four days after the Israeli bombing of the Syrian facility, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il sent a message to Assad reaffirming that “the excellent friendly and co-operative relations between the two countries are steadily growing stronger even under the complicated international situation.”€ A more strident message was sent the following day condemning the Israeli air assault as “illegal” and a “very dangerous provocation.”€

North Korean top envoy meeting Syrian head of state Assad in Damascus in 2006

North Korean top envoy meeting Syrian head of state Assad in Damascus in 2006

On September 22 2007, a delegation of Syrian diplomats, led by leading Ba’ath party figure Saaeed Eleia Dawood, was met by Kim Yong Nam, head of the Supreme People’s Assembly.

On September 24 of the same year North Korea’s official party newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, said, “Israeli warplanes’ intrusion into the territorial airspace of Syria and bomb-dropping are an outright violation of Syria’s sovereignty and a grave crime that destroys regional peace and security,” and that the United States supported this “brazen behavior.”

In November 2007, North Korean ground-to-ground missile engineers secretly returned to Syria to hold talks on how to resume tests to arm with chemical warheads the ballistic missiles Pyongyang provided to Damascus. The objective was to extend the range and accuracy of Syrian missiles to be able to reach the entirety Israeli territory.

ASSASSINATIONS

In February 2008, Hezbollah” chief of security”  Imad Mughniyah was assassinated in downtown Damascus.

He was also Hezbollah’s chief liaison with Pyongyang

Mughniyah had made several trips to Pyongyang and coordinated North Korean assistance to Hezbollah, which included a variety of conventional weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, training by Pyongyang of their guerrilla fighters, and the sophisticated construction of a North Korean-designed and built underground tunnel network in southern Syria along the Lebanese border.

North Korea’s connection to Hezbollah, Imad Mughniyah | Picture: Wikipedia

North Korea’s connection to Hezbollah, Imad Mughniyah | Picture: Wikipedia

Mughniyah was also one of the most-wanted terrorists and bomb-makers in the Middle East, widely recognized as the mastermind of the bombings at the U.S. Marine barracks and embassy in Beirut that killed hundreds of American troops and diplomats in the 1980s.

Israeli intelligence had information that Mughniyah was plotting a military attack in retaliation for the Israeli strike against the North Korean-built plutonium weapons facility, according to a detailed report by Der Spiegel in 2009.

On the night of February 12, 2008, Imad Mughniyah attended a party at the Iranian embassy in Damascus where other guests included the Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and the Syrian official in charge of coordinating covert weapons projects with Pyongyang, Gen. Mohammed Suleiman. After leaving the reception, Mughniyah was killed when a bomb placed in the headrest of the driver’s seat of his Pajero exploded.

Six months later, on August 2, 2008, on the coast near the Syrian city of Tartus, Suleiman was relaxing at his weekend home. Suleiman was Assad’s top military and security aide in charge of Syria’s covert weapons, including their missile, chemical and nuclear weapons-development program.

Suleiman was also Damascus’s chief liaison with North Korea.

Charged with ensuring the security of the North Korean scientists, military advisors and technicians stationed in and visiting Syria, Suleiman had made numerous trips to North Korea to personally oversee the procurement of nuclear and, chemical weapons, as well as ballistic missile components.

Suleiman was in charge of “development of missiles, chemical and biological weapons and nuclear research and development. He coordinated the transfer of the reactor’s parts to Syria and was in charge of security arrangements for the North Korean scientists and technicians involved in its construction,” wrote Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal in their 2010 book “Mossad:  The Great Operations.”€

After the Israeli bombing destroyed the plutonium production site, Suleiman began plans to build a replacement nuclear facility, but “Suleiman’s new mission was much more complex and difficult than before, since he was now aware that he was on the Israeli and American intelligence agencies radars.”€

Accounts of what happened next vary depending on what sources are cited, but agree that Suleiman was in his vacation home when assassins’  bullets killed him while he was eating at his dinner table with family and friends.

A yacht with Israeli navy scuba divers and snipers was two kilometers off the Syrian coast.

According to the London Sunday Times, two scuba divers with guns in water-proof cases swam to shore, identified Suleiman and both fired one shot, hitting the chief of Syria’s missile, chemical and nuclear weapons program in the head. Other reports suggest Israeli snipers firing from the sea vessel.

Several days after the killing, Syria’s official media released a short statement: “Syria is holding an investigation to find those responsible for this crime.”

Secret U.S. diplomatic documents, released by WikiLeaks, quote U.S. officials saying Syria believed Israel was responsible for the assassination of Suleiman, who “enjoyed a reputation… as having special status and proximity to Assad.”

“As in other recent assassinations in Syria, speculation about who could have done it will likely be rampant,” read the classified August 2008 cable from the U.S. embassy in Damascus. “The most obvious suspects are the Israelis.”

RUSSIAN CONNECTION

In the 1990s, the commander of the Russian Military Academy for Chemical Warfare, Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich, was also the top adviser on chemical weapons disarmament for then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin. But, as the former Soviet Union disintegrated, Kuntsevich secretly took on lucrative freelancing opportunities on the international chemical weapons black market.

In 1993, through a front company Kuntsevich created, he provided Syria 800 kilograms of key chemicals, smuggled from the Russian Military Academy for chemical warfare, to produce a sophisticated version of VX nerve gas which was adapted into chemical warheads.

Kuntsevich worked secretly for Damascus in exchange for large amounts of money to build their chemical weapons programs until 2002, when he was said to have died mysteriously on a flight from Damascus to Moscow. But Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman notes that his headstone in a Moscow cemetery lists his date of death as three days before the flight’s departure.

His death came after several high level demarches from Israel to the Kremlin to force Kuntsevich to cease his chemical weapons activities went unaddressed.

And in 2010, the Russian deputy head of the GRU, the military intelligence agency, died in a purported swimming accident in Damascus.

Israeli agents are suspected of being responsible for both deaths.

HOME TERRITORY

In July 2012, the core leadership of Syria’s military and security services were killed or injured in a bomb attack at the headquarters of the National Security Bureau in Damascus. Asef Shawkat, head of military intelligence; Rajha Daud, Minister of Defence; Hesham Bakhtiar, head of the National Security Service; and Tourkmani Hassan, Chief of Staff, were killed in the blast.

What went largely unnoticed was the assassination four days later of Dr. Nabil Zougheib, Syria’s top missile scientist and head of the missile development program for the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center.

A trained missile engineer, Brig. Gen. Nabil Zougheib was a frequent visitor to Pyongyang. He had directly supervised North Korean missile engineers weaponizing North Korean supplied ballistic missile with chemical warheads.

“We have seen assassinations to people who hold key positions in research programs where the aim was to stop these research programs as with Doctor Nabil Zougheib,” Damascus based Syrian journalist Alaa Ebrahim said in media interviews.

Other Syrian scientists assassinated include a nuclear engineer and researcher, Aws Abdel Karim Khalil, and Brigadier General and chemical engineer Na elDakhil from the Department of Chemical Engineering.”

Dr. Ali Mohamad, editor-in-chief of the Syria Tribune, a pro Assad Damascus based media organization, said in a media interview “Let’s remember that the Syrian official who was responsible for all military research projects has been assassinated in Damascus by the rebels,” he said. “Let’s also remember that the person who orchestrated the Syrian long-range missile project colonel Dawoud Rajiha, was also assassinated in Damascus. This is about stopping the Syrian scientific military research projects and is about breaking the link that will help [Israel] overcome the Lebanese resistance and the Palestinians.”€

They were only the latest in a long list of dead scientists who have worked on Syria’s weapons of mass destruction development program over the last decade.

Somalia Pirates Hijack North Korean Ship, Then Decide it Isn’t Worth it and Turn Themselves In

21 Dec

Somalia Pirates Hijack Norean Ship, Then Decide it Isn’t Worth it and Turn Themselves In

December 20, 2012

By Nate Thayer

Somalia pirates hijacked a North Korean ship on Tuesday only to have second thoughts after the hijackers decided it wasn’t worth the hassle or effort and have turned around and now headed back to a Somalia port to turn themselves in.

Sources told Reuters that security forces guarding the North Korean-flagged vessel were involved in the hijacking of the ship and its 33 crew on the vessel late Tuesday night.

According to local sources, 8 soldiers decided to hijack the ship and after traveling for several hours, the hijackers argued amongst themselves over their decision, some of the men regretted the hijacking. After heated debates, the rogue security forces decided to return the ship and contacted Puntland security officials of their decision.

The MV Daesan, a North Korean ship with a load of cement was seized by Somalia authorities in November after the cargo of cement was rejected by importers in Mogadishu who claimed that it was of inferior quality saying it was wet and unusable. The Somalia purchasers refused to pay or take possession of the order.

Somalia pirates decide hijacking a North Korean sip isn't worth the hassle

Somalia pirates decide hijacking a North Korean sip isn’t worth the hassle

The North Korean ship then allegedly dumped the rejected cement at sea.

The ship and its crew of 33 was seized, impounded, and fined last month by Puntland autonomous region authorities on Nov. 17. It has remained in custody and the fine unpaid.

Puntland security officials say two coast guard boats are chaperoning the MV Daesan back into Puntland waters where the case over the MV Daesan dumped 5,000 metric tons of cement 13 nautical miles east of Bossaso coast is still ongoing at the local court.

North Korea, one of the most isolated and poorest countries in the world having its goods rejected as inferior by another of the poorest most rogue nations, Somalia, and then having even its pirates decide that it was not worth the effort to hijack a North Korean ship, was not reported by official Pyongyang media.

The Gulf of Aden has been the focal point of sea piracy in recent years, forcing the ships to stop and pirates boarding, taking the crews hostage, tow the vessels into Somali ports and demand millions of dollars in ransom.

About 3.4 million barrels per day of oil flowed through the choke point between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden off of Somalia last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

About 136 hostages taken in the Indian Ocean off Somalia are still being held captive, but the number of hijackings of ships has dropped to seven in the first 11 months of this year compared to 24 in the whole of 2011. NATO records show a fall in pirate activity with no ships hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia for the last six months. NATO is one of the international bodies providing international warships to provide security along the Somali coasts.

Attempted hijackings are also down, suggesting that pirates are concluding that the risk is not worth the effort. Unsuccessful attempts dropped to 36 this year, from 189 in 2010.

A spokesman for the International Maritime Bureau in London was quoted as saying that the ships pirates are able to hijack are often owned by companies that cannot afford to pay a ransom to free the crew.

“The business model is breaking,” Cyrus Mody said, but he noted that piracy seems to be rising on Africa’s West Coast.

The establishment of a new Somalia government, including the election of a parliament and a President, and the appointment of a Prime Minister and a cabinet, has played a major role in decreasing piracy activities. Somalia military forces have recaptured of a number of the ports along the Somali coast in recent months. Somalia’s Supreme Court is reported to have said that pirates seized by international security forces can now be tried inside the country.

The Spy Sub, A Poisoned Diplomat in Russia, and a Naked, Drunk American Preacher in Pyongyang

19 Sep

The North Korean Spy Sub, a Poisoned Diplomat in Vladivostok, and the Naked, Drunk American Preacher  in Pyongyang

The 1996 secret mission that caused tremors from Washington to Seoul to Vladivostok

By Nate Thayer#north Kore

On a lonely stretch of coastal highway on September 18, 1996, South Korean cab driver Lee Jin Gyu noticed a strange gathering of men, all well-groomed and dressed alike, standing conspicuously out-of-place between the road and the ocean in the pre dawn hours .

After dropping off his fare he slowed at the spot on his return trip, but the men were gone. He stopped, got out of his cab and walked down to the beach. As he scanned the horizon, he noticed what looked like the outline of a submarine idly rocking in the waves 20 meters from shore. He called the police.

Authorities arrived to find inside the abandoned underwater spy ship a machine gun, an AK-47 assault rifle, and a hand scrawled message: “We must accomplish our mission.”

40,000 South Korean troops immediately mobilized and the hunt was on.

North Korean Spy submarine that ran aground as it infiltrated 26 commandos into the South in September 1996

Thus began a more than month saga of high tension on the Korean peninsula involving the mobilization of tens of thousands of soldier, armed spies on the run, man hunts, the assassination of a diplomat in Russia, the capture of a naked, drunk American preacher accused of being a spy by North Korea, several stabbing deaths of civilians caught in the dragnet, a lone soldier strangled to death in the night, numerous firefights, a group suicide, and a night playing video games at a ski resort.

The taxi driver did not know what he had stumbled into, nor that he was igniting a fire that would spread through the region and beyond, at times dangerously out of control. He had inadvertently encountered a North Korean Shark class submarine with a crew of 26 Special Operations soldiers of North Korea’s General Reconnaissance Bureau on a secret mission to infiltrate the South.

South Koreans were on edge looking over their shoulders for what seemed like forever as the drama unfolded.

Over the next months, a trail of mayhem and intrigue left 24 North Korean spies shot dead, one captured, 16 South Korean civilians murdered, 13 South Korean soldiers shot dead, including a Colonel, and five others wounded, an off-duty South Korean soldier strangled by the escaping infiltrators, a South Korean diplomat in Vladivostok, Russia assassinated, an intoxicated American Christian preacher held as a spy in a North Korean prison, and the two Korean governments teetering on an outbreak of war.

By the time the dust settled 49 days later, one North Korean spy remained unaccounted for, probably having slipped across the DMZ through the most heavily mined patch of land on earth back to the safety of DPRK territory.

A “Shark” class North Korean spy submarine

As the confrontation unfolded, North Korea responded with signature indignation to the public exposure of the plot, insisting the submarine was on a routine patrol, had experienced mechanical problems, and inadvertently drifted off course, and demanded the immediate return of the now missing crew, threatening the South as tensions spiked.

“It is self-evident that we the victims cannot show self-restraint any longer,” Pyongyang official Korean Central News Agency said as the incident splashed across headlines and the manhunt began. “We have the right to retaliate on the offenders.”

Within 2 days one of the North Korean infiltrators was seized after a farmer saw him in his fields.

At first the captured operative contended the vessel was forced by strong currents into South Korean waters, but after his South Korean interrogators brought out Korean rice vodka, he confessed that they had been on a spy mission to gather intelligence on military facilities.

Soon afterwards, South Korean military forces, who by now were scouring the country, discovered 11 dead bodies with single bullet holes in their heads lying symmetrically alongside one another only a few miles from the site of the grounded submarine.

They included the deputy director of the Maritime Bureau of the General Reconnaissance Bureau, North Korea’s top spy agency in charge of covert foreign operations, including assassination and infiltration squads targeting South Korea; the captain of the submarine; and eight members of the special operations infiltration team.

Kim Hyon-hui, the former North Korean spy convicted of bombing a Seoul-bound Korean Air flight in 1987 in which all 115 crew and civilian passengers were killed when the plane exploded in mid-air over the Bay of Bengal after she was captured in the UAE. She said she was commanded by Kim Jong Il personally and trained by kidnapped former Tokyo waitress Yaeko Taguchi to speak and act Japanese. Disguised as a Japanese tourist, she and a male companion planted a bomb, and departed the plane on a stopover. She and her companion both took poison as they were about to be arrested but she survived, later sentenced to death by a Seoul court, and received a presidential pardon in 1990. She said the North’s leaders had ordered the attack on the plane to discourage foreign countries from sending athletes to the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

The head of the General Reconnaissance Bureau Maritime Division lay a few meters askew, his weapon still by his side. The spy team chose a group suicide rather than to be captured by the enemy.

Over the next days’ numerous firefights broke out around South Korea as tens of thousands of mobilized troops began to close the circle on the remaining spies who had no intention of surrendering without a fight. Within two weeks, 11 more of the commandos were killed in separate clashes as the commandos broke into smaller units and went in different directions across the South, choosing to go down fighting rather than the indignity of capture.

By early October, only three of the original 26 member team remained at large.

All the while, North Korea ratcheted up hits threatening rhetoric, denied any hostile intent, and warned of “serious consequences” if their vessel or crew were harmed.

North Korean officers delivered a warning to American military officials at an October 1 meeting at at the truce village of Panmunjom, near the demarcation line that separates the two Korea’s, after the first commandos were killed. A senior North Korean official tried to pass a note to the Americans that read “serious consequences, which would be announced, would occur as a result of the deaths of their soldiers,” the U.S. said in a statement. U.S. officers read the note but refused to accept it.

American missionary Evan Hunziker swam across the Yalu River without a passport and was captured by North Korea security forces, detained for 90 days and charged with being a spy for South Korea. North Koreans, wanted $100,000 paid for his release.

Days later, a South Korean diplomat was assassinated in Vladivostok, Russia by a poisoned hypodermic needle. He was walking up the stairwell to his seventh floor flat when he was attacked.  His diplomatic passport and over $1000 in cash were left untouched in his pocket. There were two pencil-sized holes in his torso which suggested injection of a foreign substance into his body. Tests later confirmed that he had poison in his bloodstream of the same type as that carried by the special operation commandos on the North Korean submarine.

The South Korean government ordered stepped-up security for its diplomats around the world and sent a team of investigators to Russia.

Russian police investigators said it was the work of a team of two or more professional assassins. The diplomat was responsible for monitoring North Korean activities in the area. South Korean officials said the wounds in the stomach were caused by a hypodermic needle. Russian police began searching for two men with Asian complexions who were seen in the stairway shortly before the attack by a Russian woman who lived in the building.

On October 3, Rodong Sinmun, the official paper of the North Korean ruling Korean Worker’s Party and broadcast by Radio Pyongyang, said “South Korea is framing a despicable plot to link our country to the murder.”

In response to Pyongyang’s threats of retaliation for the deaths of by then 22 North Korean infiltrators from the submarine, South Korea ordered security tightened at airports, warned residents that North Korea may strike again, and said diplomatic missions faced possible terrorist attacks.

Prime Minister Lee met security officials and authorities decided to beef up protection of 395 key facilities, including airports, communication centers, ports, and power plants.

Meanwhile, American Evan Carl Hunziker, who had swum, drunk and naked, from China into North Korea “to preach the gospel” on August 24 was seized by North Korean border guards.  On October 6 North Korea announced they had captured an “American spy”, and began an effort to use the Christian missionary as leverage in exchange for the return of their remaining crew still being hunted down in the South.

Analysts noted that the North Koreans said they caught the 26-year-old American, who was working as a missionary in Beijing, on August 24 as he swam across the river marking the border between China and North Korea, but did not announce his arrest as a spy until more than six weeks later after the submarine incident unfolded and three days after South Korea announced their broad security crackdown.

U.S. officials said there would be no negotiations to exchange the imprisoned American preacher for the remaining spy team. ”It would be outrageous and indefensible, should the North Koreans try to link the submarine incident with this unfortunate young man who has been arrested, because the North Koreans were the aggressor and the clear violator of international agreements in sending that submarine down the South Korean coast,” Mr. Burns said. ”So we reject any linkage.”

It would be another month before Seoul authorities would track down the other members of the infiltration team still on the loose.

Mounting popular alarm over the spies on the loose led to South Korean President Kim Young Sam firing Defense Minister Lee Yang Ho on October 17th and the resignation of the Foreign Minister.

The submarine affair had even broader consequences.

Secretary of State Albright with kim Jong Il after signing one of many since abrogated agreements to try and stem WMD development programs

Security and spot checks were increased at important domestic facilities, including airports, subway stations, department stores, harbors, bus terminals and power plants. Security at South Korean embassies and trade missions abroad was stepped up and increased measures were taken to protect high-ranking officials.

South Korea halted all aid programs to the North, and banned South Koreans from engaging in commerce with Pyongyang.

A delicate process of wooing North Korea from its isolation, a newly inked landmark 1994 accord under which Pyongyang agreed to give up its nuclear weapons program, and international efforts to ease a famine underway that would claim more than a million lives were all threatened by the new tensions.

Seoul said they would delay signing a $4-billion energy agreement of an international consortium with the United States, Japan and North Korea that was part of the delicate negotiations to get Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear weapons program. The program was at the time hailed by U.S. president Clinton as a showcase of multinational problem-solving.

And with three remaining commandos still on the loose, the cost of the incident mounted.

Two months after the vessel went aground, the Korean peninsula saw a surge in tensions, growing fears of escalated military confrontation, a worsening famine that remained unaddressed, the scuttling of progress for improved inter-Korean relations, and, importantly even a new rift created between South Korea and its most important ally, the U.S.

South Korea was angered by the U.S. response to the submarine infiltration after Secretary of State Warren Christopher called for restraint from ”all parties.”

South Korean military commanders suggested the purpose of the spy mission was more than to collect data on military bases. ”We think that North Korea will make large or small-scale military provocations,” said Lieut. Gen. Park Yong Ok, the Assistant Defense Minister. ”We’re preparing.”  He said the mission of the commandos may have been to create armed rear bases in the mountains of South Korea in preparation for future large-scale actions. ”It was not purely an intelligence mission,” he said.

North Korea has approximately 100,000 Special Forces operatives trained to infiltrate rear areas of South Korea at the beginning of an invasion.

So with the failure to capture all of the commandos, there was a wave of popular South Korean discontent among civilians, undermining the stability of the South Korean government.

49 days after the vessel landed on the beach, two of the commandos, who now were disguised dressed in South Korean military uniforms and armed with South Korean M-16 assault rifles and grenades, were killed in a last stand firefight.

The violent confrontation, which was only a few miles from the DMZ as the spies attempted to exfiltrate back to the North, left a South Korean Colonel and two soldiers dead, and 14 more soldiers wounded.

Evidence found on the bodies of the two North Koreans told of the sometimes arduous and sometimes peculiar twists of their journey over the previous two months.

For the first days, the commandos had hidden in underground bunkers, and then broke into remote farmhouses to steal food. Despite the intense nationwide manhunt and the loss of the rest of their crew, the two spies continued to pursue their original mission. Film found on their bodies revealed pictures of South Korean military facilities.

And, in a still unexplained detour, the two commandos spent one evening playing video games at a holiday ski resort, where they spent the night.

During their 7 week journey, they killed three South Korean civilians with a knife and strangled a South Korean soldier who had the misfortune to cross the hunted spy operatives path.

The remaining single unaccounted for member of the original 26 man commando unit disappeared. It is believed he slipped across the DMZ back into North Korea.

Throughout the two month period, Pyongyang maintained a posture of high decibel threatening rhetoric, vowing retaliation, denying any nefarious intentions, and demanding the return of the crew and their submarine. South Korea demanded an apology before they would return the remains of the crew or resume negotiations or badly needed food assistance to the famine now fully underway in the North that would cause more than a million deaths in coming months.

Finally, at the end of December, North Korea did something it rarely does. It issued a statement saying they had “deep regret” over the incident which had spiraled by this time far beyond the mission purpose of a covert infiltration to gather military intelligence. But it was not an apology.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is authorized to express deep regret for the submarine incident in the coastal waters of Kangrung, South Korea, in September, 1996 that caused the tragic loss of human life.  The DPRK will make efforts to insure that such an incident will not recur

South Korea promptly returned the now 25 accumulated bodies of the spies that the two month confrontation had left in its wake.

After the bodies were returned, North Korea reverted to their usual hubris over state radio by saying “the South Korean authorities admitted and apologized for their inhuman crimes.”

Tycoon Says He Financed Hun Sen Coup

24 Jul

Tycoon Says He Financed Hun Sen

Coup; $1 Million Underwrote

Cambodian Takeover

The Washington Post
July 24, 1997
By Nate Thayer

A powerful Cambodian businessman and suspected drug kingpin says he gave more than $1 million in cash and gold to co-prime minister Hun Sen and his allies to fund a coup that ousted rival government leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh this month.

Theng Bunma, reputedly Cambodia’s wealthiest man and a staunch supporter of Hun Sen, told Western journalists in an interview in Phnom Penh last week that he had called Hun Sen during the July 5-6 coup to offer his support. Among those present at the interview was an Australian television news crew, which made a tape available to The Washington Post.

“I gave him {Hun Sen} $1 million to do whatever to control the situation,” Bunma told the reporters. “He asked me if I had the money in Cambodia. I said no, but I would send 100 kilograms {220 pounds} of gold in a plane into Cambodia.” That amount of gold is worth about $860,000.

Bunma, who is president of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce and owns holdings worth an estimated $400 million in Cambodia, also said he paid three renegade members of Ranariddh’s Funcinpec party $50,000 each to support Hun Sen’s coup.

The tycoon made it clear that he saw the takeover as good for his business interests, but he did not explain why he was revealing a role in bankrolling it. The U.S. government believes that Bunma, in addition to owning a hotel, a bank and an import-export company in Cambodia, is the country’s biggest heroin trafficker.

In the interview, Bunma reiterated his previous denials of involvement in drug trafficking. “I was accused of being a drug trafficker, and I am telling you, drug trafficking, I really hate that,” he said. “I have never done it.”

In a briefing in Washington Tuesday, however, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said, “We have reliable reporting that he {Theng Bunma} is closely and heavily involved in drug trafficking in Cambodia.”

He said the United States “does not have evidence that links Hun Sen himself, personally, to these accusations of narcotics trafficking” but that “we think the Cambodian government can do a lot more to purge itself of obvious corruption in the government, of obvious linkages between . . . members of the government and narco-traffickers.”

In an interview with The Washington Post in Bangkok Saturday, Ranariddh charged that Bunma and another wealthy suspected drug trafficker, Mong Rethy, have long been bankrolling Hun Sen. “He gets money from them, and they are drug traffickers,” Ranariddh said. “I ask now that President Clinton . . . make public the investigation of the {Drug Enforcement Administration} on drug trafficking in Cambodia,” Ranariddh added. “The DEA knows clearly.” “The mafia is now in charge in Cambodia,” Ranariddh declared, saying he was referring to “people like Theng Bunma, who is very, very powerful.”

During the coup, more than 300 of Hun Sen’s troops, backed by tanks, were dispatched to protect Bunma’s property. In the interview last week, Bunma expressed appreciation for that action and support for Ranariddh’s ouster. “I say what {Hun Sen} did was correct,” Bunma said. “Why? One reason. Take the example of my hotel.” Ranariddh’s troops wanted to destroy it, he said, but Hun Sen “put three tanks and soldiers around to protect it.”

Bunma said that he gave $50,000 each to three Funcinpec politicians opposed to Ranariddh — provincial governors Toan Chhay and Duong Khem and minister of state Ung Phan — to “encourage them” and cement their support for Hun Sen’s coup.

According to Western military sources in Phnom Penh, Bunma also has provided Hun Sen in recent days with Russian-made Mi-26 transport helicopters to ferry troops to front-line positions in northwestern Cambodia to battle Funcinpec loyalists. The helicopters are owned by Bunma and piloted by hired Russian crews. Intelligence sources say the helicopters also have been used to carry Southeast Asian heroin to Cambodian ports as part of international smuggling operations.

—oo—

Thai Border: A Wild West of Anarchy

20 Nov

Thai Border: A Wild West of Anarchy

By Nate Thayer

Phnom Penh Post

Friday, 20 November 1992

BANGKOK, Thailand-Thai officials, black market traders, and U.N. workers who have operated on the Thai-Cambodian border for years say U.N. efforts to impose economic sanctions against the Khmer Rouge will be virtually impossible to enforce.
The U.N. hopes to pressure the Khmer Rouge into rejoining the deadlocked peace process, in part by sealing the 830-kilometer border, where Khmer Rouge timber and gem concessions add millions of dollars a year to the coffers of the powerful guerrilla faction.

Except for a strip of only a few kilometers near the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, the central government is not in control of most of the border, from the Gulf of Thailand to Laos.

Aside from the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian-Thai frontier is home to a powerful plethora of shady businessmen, rebel groups, warlords, fortune seekers, gangsters, and assorted bad guys who have operated without serious hindrance for generations.

Since the days of the anti-French resistance in the 1940s, Khmer rebels and outlaws have used the sanctuary of the mountain and jungle escarpment to fight whoever was in power in Phnom Penh. Scores of other warlords have maintained small armies that control trading routes.

Since 1979 the border has been home to the three Khmer resistance factions. The signing of peace accords in October 1991 resulted in the factions’ foreign backers cutting off all supplies, forcing the groups to seek revenue elsewhere.

Now that there is “peace” in Cambodia, some of the rebel armies have embarked on an orgy of lucrative trading. No longer under the control of their nominal commanders, dozens of separate military units are carving out control of their own plots of Cambodia, selling everything from toothpaste to surface-to-air missiles. While some of the trading ends up in the central coffers of these groups, most is controlled by loosely-monitored bands of independent operators.

With the peace plan mandating that the Cambodian armies disarm and turn their weapons over to the United Nations, many of the soldiers have opted for a more profitable alternative. The frontier has turned into one of the biggest arms bazaars in Asia, with thousands of weapons being sold in recent months.

Arms traders recently offered the Phnom Penh Post a selection of SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles at 280,000 Baht (U.S. $11,200) each. Tanks, helicopters, artillery, and assorted light weaponry and ammunition are also available.

Intelligence officials and black market arms dealers say that the border has attracted representatives of a number of groups from around Asia looking for weapons. They say that the notorious Burmese drug warlord Khun Sa recently purchased two surface-to-air missiles, as did anti-Burmese Karen rebels. Anti-government guerrillas from the Philippines and Sri Lanka have also made inquiries, as have representatives from Sikh separatist organizations in India and Muslim separatists from the Burmese-Bangladeshi border.

“I think you should buy them,” said the arms dealer with a look of alarm. “Some of the people I am dealing with seem to be very dangerous people. It is better that you have them all.”

Black market traders on the Thai border, who operate easily with Cambodian guerrillas as well as Thai officials, say that processed heroin is available for sale, as are ancient Khmer artifacts looted from temples, and even uranium.

The border has also turned into a freeway for cars stolen in Thailand and slipped over the border, where hundreds of vehicles have showed up in Phnom Penh to be openly sold in the markets. Some are seen with military license plates of the Phnom Penh regime attached to make transport across western Cambodia less difficult at checkpoints.

Across from southeast Thailand, more than a 100,000 Thais and Burmese have crossed the border to seek their fortune in Khmer Rouge-controlled ruby mines, a major source of income for the faction. The miners say that they can carry out handfuls of gems worth millions of baht in their pocket, and they laugh at the thought that the blue-bereted UN peacekeepers will be able to stop them.

Thai Minister of Parliament Thanit Traivut, who represents the border province of Trat adjoining the Khmer Rouge-controlled gem mines, told the Post that 57 Thai companies now operate in the ruby area, with nearly 1,000 earth-moving vehicles. He said that U.N. sanctions could cause the companies, which have invested more than 3 billion Thai baht on equipment, to lose their shirts.

One rai (1,600 square meters) of earth is leased to the mostly small companies at a cost of 2 million baht (U.S. $40,000). Whole divisions of Khmer Rouge fighters have turned into “economic cadre” to provide security, build roads, and check permission papers of the Thai miners. The miners say that no Cambodians are allowed to work in the area.

On the northern borders, controlled by the notorious one-legged Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok, Thai logging companies said to be linked with senior members of the Thai military have paid millions of dollars for the right to cut logs in Cambodia.

The Thai government has sold the rights to 17 entry points to Thai companies who in turn are given the right to tax logs coming into Thailand. Senior Thai officials are reportedly on the receiving end of some of the profit.

According to traders, the highly-secret Thai intelligence unit known as 838, which was responsible for covert liaison and weapons supplies to the Khmer Rouge during the 13-year war against the Vietnamese, receives 40 baht (U.S. $1.60) for each cubic meter of wood that crosses into Thailand.

Through a complicated procedure of payoffs, Thai loggers pay fees of around 5,000 baht (U.S. $197) per cubic meter for soft wood, and considerably higher for hardwoods. Several Thai companies, known to be controlled by Thai organized-crime groups, are involved in the logging concessions, with the sanction of several well-known Thai political figures.

Thanit Traivut, in an interview with the Post, said that UNTAC officials have asked Thailand to be prepared to close the border by the end of the year. He said that Thailand “will request to postpone [implementation of sanctions] until next year in order to allow Thai companies to recoup their losses.”

Furthermore, the Phnom Penh regime is involved in buying logs from their enemies-the Khmer Rouge-paying fees to the Khmer Rouge in many areas in order to transport logs through Cambodia, often to the port at Kompong Som. This adds further complications to the effectiveness of U.N. sanctions, which are not directed at the Phnom Penh regime.

In case U.N. officials are looking for reference points to study in their effort to impose the sanctions, they need look no further than the Thai border to the west with Burma.

There Khun Sa, reputed to be the world’s number one opium trader and with a U.S. arrest warrant à la Manuel Noriega on his head, controls a section of Burma from which he exports the drug through Thailand.

Despite the efforts of hundreds of U.S. drug and intelligence agents, and with the stated support of both the Thai government and military, the flow of opium and its derivative heroin continues virtually unabated.

One Thai weapons trader, reflecting on the reaction of the Khmer Rouge if the United Nations attempts to cut its purse strings, said: “Right now the Khmer Rouge do not hurt the U.N. But if the U.N. does that, they will have to kill them. You know, they don’t like foreigners anyway.”

Another Thai arms dealer, with long experience running weapons through Thai borders with several neighboring countries, said: “It will be easy to order sanctions, but impossible to enforce. The order just comes from air-conditioned rooms. But in the field, too many people are making money.

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