Taiwan's detention of a North Korean vessel carrying chemicals used in making rocket fuel is yet another message from the US to the North, experts say, delivered days ahead of what are seen as crucial talks in Beijing: The US and Asian neighbors will not support efforts by the Kim Jong Il regime to develop weapons of mass destruction, and its ships are under observation and could be stopped at any time.
On the basis of US intelligence that the ship was carrying substances used for a nuclear program, Taiwan authorities boarded the Be Gaehung on Friday. The North Korean ship had docked in Kaohsiung Harbor, Taiwan's largest port. On Sunday, Taiwan customs officers requested the vessel unload some 158 barrels of phosphorus pentasulfide. A private consultant working for North Korea in Kaohsiung said the substance is an ordinary chemical product and should not be confiscated, according to the Central News Agency in Taipei. Monday, however, the barrels were voluntarily unloaded, then confiscated.
The Taiwan interdiction is the first case of a taking of North Korean cargo following a warning by the US in June that its ships can be stopped and checked. After talks between China, the US, and North Korea ended abruptly in April, United States and Asian diplomats met in Singapore to discuss methods of interdicting North Korean ships - to block illicit drug traffic and technology used for nuclear weapons.
Now, amid intense diplomacy, six-party talks are expected to be held the last week of August in Beijing. The US has staked out a tough position, asking for a complete and verifiable end to the North's nuclear programs.
"The US is doing all it can to show North Korea that it is serious, and that the Asian nations are willing to go along in efforts to stop weapons of mass destruction," argues Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a security research center in Taipei.
"The US is making sure the [shipping] issue gets on the table in negotiations."
Yet by allowing cargo to be unloaded, the North may also be sending another in a series of "good news" messages, experts say: We are not going to create an international incident; we are ready to negotiate.
In recent weeks, North Korea has noticeably lowered the volume of its often vitriolic anti-US rhetoric. The regime is sending athletes to participate in the Asian Games in Seoul this month, and appears to be softening its image, prior to talks, in what some pundits have referred to as a "charm offensive."
The Be Gaehung's logs say it was en route from Thailand to the North Korean port of Nanpo, Taiwan news sources report. Kaohsiung, the fifth-busiest port in the world, is located on a highly strategic shipping lane that connects the Indian and Pacific oceans. The North Korean vessel was there to unload some 2,000 tons of aluminum powder before continuing to Nanpo.
Last December, at the request of the US, Spanish commandos boarded a North Korean vessel in the Arabian Sea. The ship was carrying Scud missile parts, bound for Yemen, which were not listed in its cargo manifest. But no maritime laws forbid such cargo, and the ship was allowed to continue. The US placed sanctions on the North Korean company that made the parts.
Following the Arabian Sea incident, and as a result of a nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula, including Pyongyang's direct claim that it is pursuing a nuclear weapons option - the US has begun efforts to interdict North Korean shipping.
The "Madrid initiative" in June has also brought agreement by seven European countries, Canada, Australia, and Japan to change international laws to allow the boarding of North Korean vessels. However, the Taiwan harbor case was handled under bilateral agreements between the US and Taiwan, sources say.
"We are pleased that Taiwan authorities have acted in this case," says Judith Mudd-Krijgelmans, spokeswoman for the American Institute in Taiwan, the US agency that unofficially represents the US here. She refused further comment.
The standoff with North Korea dates to last October, when an official in Pyongyang admitted to US envoy James Kelly that it was working on a secret enriched-uranium nuclear program.
In the following months, the US ended fuel allotments, which the North said abrogated a previous treaty. Kim Jong Il then kicked out UN inspectors who monitored plutonium fuel rods capable of being reprocessed into a half-dozen nuclear devices. The North later withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has stated it is reprocessing the plutonium.
China, which has taken a lead role in multilateral diplomacy aimed at getting the North to talk, stated Monday it hoped the six-way meeting would begin in late August or early September.
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing told a Tokyo news conference Monday that the US and North Korea were far apart, however. "There are still differences on both sides and there are some that are very serious," Foreign Minister Li said.
The North has asked for a written guarantee by the US that it will not be attacked. Secretary of State Colin Powell has opted for a congressional resolution, rather than a formal assurance, to assuage North Korea.
For months, starting late last fall, the Bush administration has waved off bids, many from Asian nations, requesting that it talk directly with the North. Yet this spring after the Iraq war, and as and Kim Jong Il made new claims about his program, China in particular began to agree that a multiparty solution must be found.
Participants in talks will include China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and the US.