Global Policy Forum

Why Do Kazakhs Keep Trying to Ship


By Steve Levine

New York Times
August 27, 1999

Lmaty, Kazakhstan - The sale of about 40 MIG fighter jets to North Korea has set off a diplomatic furor here, including a possible U.S. threat to cut off aid. What Kazakhstan officials describe as a rogue group that included senior government officials had already delivered an undisclosed number of the jets to North Korea before the deal was discovered last month and the shipments halted. The affair has brought down Nurtai Abukayev, head of the State Security Committee, who had been considered one of the most powerful men in the country after President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In an interview, Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev said neither Nazarbayev nor Prime Minister Nurlan Balgimbayev knew of the sale in advance.

Yet the sale, the second such incident this year, has angered some of Kazakhstan's most important foreign allies and caused the government to appear inept, naive or reckless. The episode comes at a tense moment in which the United States, Japan and South Korea have protested North Korea's ostensible plan to test-fire a long-range missile. Details are sketchy, but diplomats say a Kazakh company agreed to provide North Korea with 30 to 40 MIG-21s, a 1960s-era fighter that is still effective in an arena like the Korean Peninsula.

For the second time in a month, Japan and South Korea have issued diplomatic protests to Kazakhstan, but the government seems particularly worried about a diplomatic breach with the United States, a guarantor of Kazakhstan independence from Russia. The Clinton administration is reviewing the matter and "there certainly is the possibility that sanctions may be triggered," a U.S. official familiar with the case said in a telephone interview from Washington. Kazakhstan is scheduled to receive about $75 million in much-needed U.S. aid this year, but that money and future funds are in jeopardy because of the sale, the official said. North Korea is one of seven nations that Washington considers sponsors of terrorism, and U.S. law prescribes sanctions against countries that provide "lethal military assistance" to any of them. The State Department has a range of options, from waiving sanctions entirely to halting all assistance.

In the last publicly disclosed application of such sanctions, in April, three Russian companies were barred for a year from any business with the United States after they sold antitank weapons to Syria. When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, some of its military goods were in republics that eventually became independent nations, and became their property. While a thriving global arms market has resulted, experts say it has been relatively unusual for the weapons to be sold to nations on the U.S. list of nations that support terrorism. Four months ago, the Kazakhstan government managed to smooth over a similar incident. On March 19, Azerbaijan announced that it had impounded a Russian-registered cargo plane on a flight from Kazakhstan that was carrying six disassembled MIG-21s.

There was confusion as to its destination. The manifest listed Slovakia. Kazakh officials said it was headed for the Czech Republic. Crew members said they were going to North Korea. Azerbaijan said the jets were headed to Yugoslavia, which is subject to a U.N. embargo and was then being bombed by NATO. In the end, no conclusion was reached. "Maybe they didn't realize the importance of selling these planes, especially to a terrorist country like North Korea," a diplomat here said. "They do now."

More Information on Sanctions in North Korea


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