Illegal shipments of missile technology and weapons from North Korea have flowed unabated under the leadership of Kim Jong Eun, dashing Western hopes that Pyongyang's new leader might moderate his country's aggressive proliferation activities.
Ships or planes bound for Myanmar and Syria and loaded with weapons-related equipment originating in North Korea have been diverted or blocked in recent months, U.S., Asian and Arab officials say. The United Nations has imposed sanctions against Pyongyang's weapons trade.
The disclosures come amid new fears that North Korea is preparing for its second long-range missile launch since Mr. Kim took power in late 2011. Satellite images this week showed increased activity at North Korea's satellite-launch station on its western coast.
The Obama administration and allied governments have been hoping to test Mr. Kim's willingness to more directly engage Washington and perhaps open up his isolated nation. U.S. officials note that the younger Kim is the first North Korean leader who didn't live through the 1950-53 Korean War. And the Swiss-educated dictator, believed to have been born in 1983 or 1984, has initiated some economic reforms, reorganized the military and shown a liking for Western pop music since succeeding his late father, Kim Jong Il.
Nonetheless, North Korea's continued arms exports and missile tests are signs that the younger Mr. Kim has little desire – or ability – to change Pyongyang's roguish behavior. Indeed, U.S. and Asian officials said they are still not certain if
Mr. Kim has fully consolidated power over North Korea's generals. And the cash-strapped North is desperately in need of the hard currency it gets from arms exports.
U.S. officials believe North Korea has remained one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's closest partners, helping develop Damascus's missile and chemical-weapons programs even as a civil war has engulfed the Arab country. U.N. inspectors believe Damascus and Pyongyang secretly built a nuclear reactor in eastern Syria before Israeli jets destroyed the facility in 2007.
Arab officials said North Korea has continued to seek to fly weapons components into Syria. The Iraqi government said it blocked in September a North Korean plane from using its airspace to fly a suspected arms shipment into Syria.
A satellite image from Nov. 23 shows a marked increase in activity at a North Korean missile-launch site.
North Korea's ties to Syria have drawn the particular focus of the U.N. Security Council, which is compiling an annual report on the international arms embargo against the country.
The report details a May seizure by the South Korean government of a Syria-bound North Korean shipment of graphite cylinders, according to Western officials who have seen the document. The equipment is believed to be used in Syria's missile programs.
U.S. defense officials said in recent interviews that North Korea, along with Iran and Russia, serves as President Assad's most important ally in allowing Damascus to continue to prosecute its war against an increasingly well-armed opposition. "North Korea hasn't appeared to slow down its cooperation at all with Syria," said a U.S. defense official.
In a new sequence of events, meanwhile, Japanese government officials are investigating the cargo of a Taiwanese ship headed for Myanmar and suspected of containing materials violating economic sanctions against North Korea's weapons trade.
The investigation, started in August but only now coming to light, found that the cargo was routed through several Asian cities in a complex shipment scheme, according to Japanese government and Taiwanese shipping officials.
The questionable cargo was loaded while the ship was in Dalian, China, where it was bound for a construction company in Myanmar. Western officials have complained before about North Korean shipments going through China, but officials in Beijing asked about the episode insisted that they abide by U.N. nonproliferation agreements.
It took a multination effort to persuade the ship's operators to redirect the cargo to Japan, where it was impounded.
Japanese officials suspect the cargo contained items linked to North Korea's nuclear weapons program; Western officials said the items could also be used by Myanmar for missiles.
Investigators have found in the cargo items with inscriptions standing for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name, according to Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, which first reported the seizure of the cargo.
The shipment and its seizure all occurred before President Barack Obama's historic visit this month to Myanmar. U.S. officials have reported significant progress in trying to cut Myanmar's military ties to Pyongyang, particularly in light of fears that the two countries may have shared nuclear technologies.
The U.S. was encouraged by Myanmar President Thein Sein's announcement this month that his nation would sign an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, to allow expansive inspections of his country.
Still, there remain concerns in the Pentagon and State Department that North Korea is trying to maintain its arms trade with Myanmar's military, even as civilians play a larger role in the running of the country.
"It's a continuous battle to try and stop North Koreans' exports," said a second U.S. official.
Zaw Htay, an official with President Thein Sein's office, acknowledged that Myanmar may have previously purchased conventional weapons from North Korea but no longer does following its transition to a quasicivilian government over the past two years. He denied that Myanmar ever had a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement with North Korea.
Pyongyang has publicly stated in the past that the U.N. sanctions are illegal and that North Korea, like the U.S., has the right to sell arms.
The State Department wouldn't comment on the seizure of the cargo. U.S. officials briefed on Tokyo's operation said Washington has cooperated with the Japanese on the investigation and is closely monitoring all North Korean air and sea traffic.
Separately, a Japanese customs official said that authorities in September seized a compact disc with information related to North Korean weapons development imported into Japan on a Norwegian-registered plane. There were no further details.
As Western officials closely monitor Pyongyang, the potential missile launch looms as a particular concern. The satellite detail this week was released by the private firm DigitalGlobe Inc., DGI -0.12%which provides imagery to the U.S. government.
The images show people, trucks and equipment at the launch site, which the firm said was consistent with photos released ahead of North Korea's failed April 13 launch.
"Given the observed level of activity noted of a new tent, trucks, people and numerous portable fuel/oxidizer tanks, should North Korea desire, it could possibly conduct its fifth satellite launch event during the next three weeks,'' DigitalGlobe said.
The State Department warned Pyongyang against a launch. The U.S. suspended a shipment of humanitarian aid to the North after the unsuccessful April test.
In addition to the current unrest in the Middle East, Obama administration officials have said in recent days that maintaining stability in East Asia could present the White House with one of its biggest foreign-policy challenges during Mr. Obama's second term.
Tensions between China and Japan have intensified in recent months due to a dispute over islands in the East China Sea, controlled by Japan, which call them Senkaku, but also claimed by China, which refers to them as Diaoyu.
A second North Korean missile test, said senior U.S. officials, could further inflame tensions, particularly as Japan believes China has played a role in facilitating Pyongyang's proliferation activities.