Posted: 23 June 2009 0752 hrs

North Korean ship, the Kang Nam I, anchored in Hong Kong waters. (file photo)

WASHINGTON: A North Korean ship being tracked by a US Navy destroyer under new UN sanctions could be headed to Myanmar, a US defense official said Monday.

The Kang Nam 1 is the first North Korean ship to be monitored since the adoption of a UN resolution designed to punish Pyongyang over its underground nuclear test last month.

As the Aegis destroyer USS John S. McCain continued to shadow the cargo ship, US officials said the vessel could be bound for another reclusive state, Myanmar.

It appears "they're trying to go to Burma," a US defense official told AFP on condition of anonymity, using the country's old name.

The official offered no further details but analysts have speculated that the aging ship could be destined for Myanmar, as the two countries have close ties and have agreed arms deals in the past.

South Korea's YTN television news channel, citing an unnamed intelligence source, reported on Sunday the ship was suspected of carrying missiles or related parts and was heading for Myanmar via Singapore.

The 2,000-tonne ship left the North Korean western port of Nampo on June 17, with Myanmar set as its final destination, YTN said.

The cargo ship provides the first possible test of United Nations sanctions that ban arms shipments -- including missile-related cargo -- to and from North Korea. The UN resolution, however, rules out the use of military force to enforce the sanctions.

The ship was one of a group of North Korean vessels previously linked to illicit cargo, according to US officials.

"It's still at sea and we're monitoring it," said another US defense official, who asked not to be named.

So far there has been "no request to query this vessel," he said.

US officials have yet to indicate if or when they might ask to search the vessel under the UN Security Council resolution.

The North Koreans are expected to reject any such request. But at some point, the ship will likely need to stop for refueling, possibly in Singapore, one of the world's largest ports.

It was unclear when and where the ship would stop but the defense official noted that "these type of ships typically don't have a long range."

Under the UN resolution, the country where the ship enters port is obliged to search the vessel if there are grounds for suspicion.

Regional tensions are at their highest for years after the North launched a long-range rocket on April 5 and conducted its second nuclear test on May 25, prompting the tougher UN sanctions.

The United States was also monitoring activity at North Korean missile sites and facilities that suggested the regime was preparing another long-range missile launch.

Although there was continued activity, "there's nothing that indicates an imminent launch," the defense official said.

According to a Japanese media report, North Korea could fire a rocket in the direction of Hawaii on or around US Independence Day on July 4.

The North staged missile launches in 2006 while the United States was marking the holiday.

- AFP/yt

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