The capture of a ship carrying 15 North Korean Scud missiles in the Arabian sea Monday dramatically underscores Washington's new emphasis on using preemptive means to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The United States has long known that North Korea shipped missile technology abroad, but this is the first time it has helped intercept these weapons. "We have never caught them red-handed before - with documents on shipboard that are a clear lie," says one US-based source in Seoul. "We have often tracked these ships, but this is the first actual evidence of proliferation."
This interdiction reflects the more aggressive posture outlined in the Bush doctrine of stopping the underground spread of weapons that can be used by terrorists or rogue nations. The US "must have the capability to defend against WMD-armed adversaries, including in appropriate cases through preemptive measures," says a strategy document released this week.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Carter, says the ship interdiction is a "completely appropriate and commendable action." But he's concerned that it may indicate a turn to more forceful preemptive action at the expense of international cooperation on weapons proliferation.
"We have real cause to be concerned about the indiscriminate proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," says Mr. Brzezinski. "But to the extent possible, an international response is preferable. Otherwise, states will respond with surreptitious, aggressive acts of their own, and we could find ourselves on a dangerous slide down to the law of the jungle."
Pyongyang has been shipping ballistic missile technology for more than a decade to countries such as Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, and Yemen. North Korea's modified version of the Soviet Scud missile, the Nodong, is believed to have provided the basis for Pakistani, Iranian, and Iraqi models of the ballistic missile, which has become commonplace in many parts of the world, including Afghanistan, where different factions used Scuds during the civil war.
Since China recently signed the Missile Control Technology Regime (MCTR), whose members promise not to export surface-to-surface missiles or their components, North Korea and Syria have been the only two countries to sell such goods, according to Paul Beaver, an independent defense analyst based in London.
The US has issued sanctions on North Korean companies seven times since 1992 for violations against MCTR. In August, Washington imposed economic sanctions on a North Korean company for sales of Scuds to Yemen.
Since neither North Korea nor Yemen are signatories to the regime, this latest shipment was not illegal. But the seizure clearly signals Washington's desire to curb missile proliferation even beyond the MCTR.
"We are talking about quite an ubiquitous weapon, but it is a terror weapon, not a precision one," says Mr. Beaver. Though the highly mobile, single-stage missile is easy to launch, "you need very precise coordinates to make it accurate, and not many nations are able to do that."
"North Korea is clearly doing this for the money, which they need desperately," he adds. Scud missiles with their launchers are believed to be worth around $13 million each.
Along with North Korea's admission in October that it has a secret uranium enrichment program, Monday's capture also gives fodder for tougher elements in the Bush administration that consider Pyongyang dangerous.
"This can be unsurprising, and still get taken quite seriously," says one US military source. "This is one more glowing example of the kind of regime we are dealing with, and it seemed to land on the administration's lap."
One South Korean official likened the Scud shipment to throwing "gunpowder onto a fire," though a Western observer suggested a major incident of this type may finally force North Korea into serious negotiations.
Three months ago Condoleezza Rice, the White House National Security Advisor gave an unambiguous warning to North Korea to stop its shipments of missile technology. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday the North is the world's "single largest proliferator" of missile technology. North Korea has developed missiles since the late 1960s, when it worked with Egypt during the Yom Kippur War.
The role of Spain in the capture of this shipment, say some analysts, also bolsters the US case of multinational cooperation in stopping weapons proliferation.
Spanish Defense Minister Federico Trillo said Wednesday that the Spanish frigate Navarra ordered the North Korean vessel, So San to stop its engines, and fired directly on it when its captain speeded up and sought to escape.
"The ship without a flag is a pirate ship," he said, explaining the authority under which the Spanish had boarded the Cambodian-registered cargo boat.
A multinational naval "Taskforce 150" in the Gulf area is currently under Spanish command, and the US, which had been tracking the So San since it left the North Korean port of Nam Po asked for Spanish assistance when it became clear that the ship was heading into waters patrolled by the taskforce, Spanish officials said.
When the So San's captain refused to stop, Spanish snipers shot out the vessel's mast cables, enabling a helicopter to get close enough to lower a unit of marines on board. They subdued the Korean crew without casualties, searched the ship and found 15 complete Scud missiles, 15 conventional warheads, 23 containers of nitric acid fuel, and 85 barrels of unidentified chemicals hidden under a cargo of cement, Mr. Trillo said.
The Yemeni government protested Wednesday to the US and Spanish governments. The missile shipment was "part of contracts signed some time ago. It belongs to the Yemen government and its army and meant for defensive purposes," the official news agency SABA quoted Yemen's Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi as saying.
The Spanish defense minister said the ship was now under the control of the US Navy, but the missiles may be returned to Yemen. "Right now, the ship is carrying 'undeclared cargo,' " a US defense official in Washington told Reuters. "But if they [the missiles] become legal cargo, there is not much we can do. Weapons sales between two countries are not against the law. Only Iraq is forbidden [by the UN) to buy weapons."
As of this writing, it's not known what generation of North Korean Scuds were found on the ship. The North has two varieties of early Scuds - Scud-B and Scud-C. The B variant has a range of 150 miles and carries a payload of some 2,000 pounds of explosive or bio-weapons. The smaller Scud-C will travel 250 miles.
The US State Department's top Asian official, Richard Armitage, arrived in Beijing yesterday after a visit to Seoul amid high-levels of anti-US tensions. Mr. Armitage is touring Asia on what is billed as a consultation visit to allies in the war on terror, and one likely to shape a response to North Korea, which stated in October it is abandoning a comprehensive 1994 treaty that exchanges a freeze on nuclear development for the building of two light-water reactors.
China is thought to have the greatest leverage with North Korea. Yet so far China's willingness to pressure Kim Jong Il, who will reportedly come to Beijing in the next 10 days, is not clear. Last week, China and Russia signed a joint declaration asking Kim Jong Il to halt his nuclear program, and for Washington to normalize relations with Pyongyang. In light of the seizure of Scuds in the Arabian Sea, such general expressions of good will are likely to be viewed as a weak remedy, analysts say.
At press time, no North Korean official had spoken about the interception. But the North's official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said in an editorial: "It is necessary to heighten vigilance against the US strategy for world supremacy and anti-terrorism war.... All countries are called upon to build self-reliant military power by their own efforts."
In the past, cash-strapped North has claimed the right to sell missile technology, and many experts agree the North is not in violation of any treaty, since it is not a signatory of the Missile Technology Control Regime.
In 1999 the North agreed to a moratorium on testing long range missiles it has under development.Some US military sources say the North's chemical and biological weapons program is the "most troubling" aspect of the regime. Pyongyang is estimated to have 5,000 tons of agents stockpiled - including VX nerve gas and sarin gas.
• Staff writer Howard LaFranchi contributed to this story from Washington.