WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence agencies are tracking a North Korean cargo ship that is believed headed for Syria with advanced missiles and missile manufacturing equipment, senior administration officials said yesterday.
Such a shipment, while not violating any of North Korea's international pledges, would be prohibited under the Missile Technology Control Regime, which North Korea has not signed.
The shipment also indicates the difficulty Washington faces in trying to halt the spread of missiles to the Middle East, particularly when faced with a tenacious provider like North Korea.
In addition to the sales to Syria, Iran has bought some of the same missiles from North Korea and is seeking production capability from North Korea, and there are some intelligence reports that Libya might also want to buy the missiles, according to administration officials.
The missiles, often referred to as Scud-C's, are an indigenous, more advanced version of the Soviet-designed Scud-B missile and have a range of about 360 miles.
In testimony before Congress on Jan. 15, Robert M. Gates, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, disclosed that North Korea "is not far from having a much larger missile for sale, one with a range of at least 1,000 kilometers."
The administration officials said the government-owned ship, the Dae Hung Ho, left North Korea in early February with an unknown number of the Scud-C missiles and related manufacturing, assembly or production equipment like machine-tool parts.
"We're watching it very closely at this time," said a senior Pentagon official when asked about the ship. He said Israeli officials had complained to Washington about the anticipated Scud delivery, and are urging the United States to stop it.
The current shipment is believed to be part of a much larger deal between North Korea and Syria that involves the transfer of missiles and launchers as well as the technology to build a missile factory in Syria.