Loose Leash on N. Korea

To prevent North Korea from exporting both nuclear weapons and regime-financing drugs, the United States, Japan, and Australia are trying to look for ways to inspect North Korean ships and want other nations to join them.

Japan took the first action Tuesday when it detained two North Korean vessels in its ports for "inspections." North Korea saw the move as "a sort of ... sanctions," which, if its recent warnings are to be believed, would amount to an act of war.

For decades, Japan has only loosely monitored North Korea's ferries and ships that regularly use Japanese ports to transport goods and money from the 600,000 Koreans living in Japan who have ties to the North. Japan's new get-tough attitude reflects its concern - along with that of the US - over the clear dangers of a nuclear North Korea.

Australia, too, sees trouble in North Korea, if only for its drug exporting. In April, Australia seized 110 pounds of heroin found on a North-Korean-owned ship in its waters.

These actions by Japan and Australia took place in their territorial waters, which is legal. But as the US learned last year when it stopped a North Korean vessel loaded with missiles heading to Yemen, there's no international law allowing such interdiction on the high seas.

South Korea, Russia, and especially China are unlikely to inspect North Korean ships in their waters unless Pyongyang is clearly exporting nukes. And trying to change the international rules could take months if not years, long after the North proves it has a capacity to sell nuclear devices to terrorists or other rogue nations.

So where will these limited actions lead? To a full US naval blockade of North Korea, which could trigger war?

No. It seems the US and two of its allies are only sending a signal of determination in order to help persuade North Korea to accept multilateral talks that include the US, China, Japan, and South Korea. For now, that's the only logical path to follow.

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