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Last August, a secret message was passed from Washington to Cairo warning about a mysterious vessel steaming toward the Suez Canal.The bulk freighter named Jie Shun was flying Cambodian colours but had sailed from North Korea, the warning said, with a North Korean crew and an unknown cargo shrouded by heavy tarps.In the 1960s and '70s, the Soviet Union gave away conventional weapons - and, in some cases, entire factories for producing them - to developing countries as a way of winning allies and creating markets for Soviet military technology.
They swarmed the vessel and discovered, concealed under bins of iron ore, a cache of more than 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades.
"I give their foreign ministry credit for taking it seriously." The Jie Shun had not yet reached the canal when an Egyptian naval vessel ordered the crew to halt for an inspection.
At first, the cargo hold appeared to match the description on the manifest: 2300 tons of loose yellow rocks called limonite, a kind of iron ore.
"It is this nesting which makes this illicit activity so hard to identify." At a time when North Korea's other profitable enterprises are being hurt by international sanctions, Thompson said, such exports are now "likely more important than ever." Even by North Korean standards, the Jie Shun was a veritable rust bucket.
The freighter's steel frame was corroded from bow to stern, and its fixtures caked with coal dust from previous voyages, UN investigators would later report.
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Over time, the small-arms trade has emerged as a reliable source of cash for a regime with considerable expertise in the tactics of running contraband, including the use of "false flag" shipping and the clever concealment of illegal cargo in bulk shipments of legitimate goods such as sugar or - as in the case of the Jie Shun - a giant mound of loose iron ore.