BANGKOK (Reuters) - Weapons seized in Thailand from an impounded plane traveling from North Korea were likely destined for Iran, said a high-ranking Thai government security official on a team investigating the arms.
“Some experts believe the weapons may be going to Iran, which has bought arms from North Korea in the past,” said the official, quoting Thai government military experts who also took part in an investigation of the weapons.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, he said the Thai investigating team considered Iran a likely destination because of the type of weaponry, including unassembled Taepodong-2 missile parts.
Security analysts have said North Korea’s long-range Taepodong-2 is a product of joint efforts with Tehran, coinciding with Iran’s development of the Shehab-5 and 6 missiles.
“Some of the components found are believed to be parts of unassembled Taepodong-2 missiles,” the official said.
U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern about North Korea’s close missile cooperation with Iran, which Washington suspects is seeking to build nuclear weapons. The relationship dates to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s when Pyongyang shipped Scud missiles.
The components were discovered among 35 tonnes of weapons sealed in 145 crates of cargo seized by Thai authorities when the plane landed in Bangkok on Friday to refuel. The buyer and destination of the weapons have been shrouded in mystery.
A Thai court on Monday extended the detention of the five-man crew — four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus — by 12 days to give authorities more time to investigate.
They each face 10 years in prison if found guilty of illegal possession of heavy weapons.
The weapons would breach a U.N. Security Council resolution in June banning communist North Korea from selling arms in response to defiant nuclear and missile tests.
The official said he understood Iran in the past had bought North Korea’s Taopodong-1 multi-stage missile, which has an estimated range of up to 2,500 km (1,553 miles). It uses liquid fuel and was fired over Japan in 1998.
Taepodong-2 was first test-launched in July 2006 and flew for about 40 seconds before it blew apart. It is a multi-stage missile with a possible range of 6,700 km (4,163 miles). Another version was launched in April and flew about 3,000 km (1,864 miles) before splashing into the sea.
Thai authorities have said the airplane’s cargo contained rocket launchers, explosives, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades and components for surface-to-air-missiles.
Police Colonel Supisarn Bhakdinarinath, the chief investigator, said on Tuesday an initial estimate of the value of the weapons, most of which were unused, was about $18 million.
But Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said it was too early to determine a value, adding that a closer inspection is necessary to determine their worth, where they may have been produced and where they were being delivered.
Crew members have denied knowledge of any weapons on board and indicated that the plane stopped en route to Sri Lanka and the Middle East to refuel.
The seizure came days after President Barack Obama’s special envoy made a three-day trip to the communist state to persuade Pyongyang to rejoin six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.
Arms are a vital export item estimated to earn North Korea more than $1 billion a year. Its biggest arms sales come from ballistic missiles, with Myanmar, Iran and Middle Eastern states among their customers, according to U.S. officials.
In August, the United Arabs Emirates seized a ship carrying North Korean-manufactured munitions, detonators, explosives and rocket-propelled grenades bound for Iran, the first since sanctions against North Korea was strengthened. The containers were disguised as oil equipment.
Editing by Jason Szep and Bill Tarrant