The North Korean ship the US is monitoring in the Pacific Ocean offers a vexing first test of how far the international community can go to prevent the North from shipping nuclear materials, even as it works under a UN resolution that some say lacks teeth.
The US began tracking the Kang Nam after it left a North Korean port Wednesday, reportedly headed for Singapore. It is not known what the ship actually contains but American officials suspect it may be carrying banned nuclear-related material or equipment. They have begun monitoring the ship using US naval vessels and planes. The destroyer USS John McCain is also reportedly in the vicinity as part of the interdiction effort, according to Fox News.
The Kang Nam is the first vessel to be tracked under a new UN resolution aimed at preventing the North from shipping nuclear-related materials. The resolution passed last week after North Korea staged a missile test and a separate, underground test of a nuclear device.
But, because of concerns voiced by Russia and China, the resolution only authorized voluntary inspections of ships to and from the North. With North Korea unlikely to voluntarily submit to searches of its ships, experts say, it leaves open the question of what more the US or the international community is prepared to do to counter the North.
"The administration is going to have to make a very hard decision right now," says Michael Auslin, a resident scholar of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. "If they have good intelligence that this ship is carrying contraband and if they do not succeed in interdicting it or getting the first port to investigate it, then you've blown a hole in the effectiveness of the resolution on its first test."
North Korea has said that it would see any forced inspection as an act of provocation.
The UN resolution adopted June 12 authorizes countries to conduct inspections of North Korean ships if there are "reasonable grounds" to suspect that banned cargo is aboard. It also adopted stricter economic sanctions and a ban on the North's arms sales.
Some ships are known to be outfitted with extra fuel and water tanks, but most will have to stop at a port sooner or later, where they could presumably be searched by local authorities amenable to the UN resolution.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged during a Pentagon briefing Thursday that the US faces a tricky situation with North Korea, but offered no details about the Kang Nam or what the US was prepared to do.
Some analysts say the glass is half-full regarding the UN resolution. It has galvanized the international community against North Korea and that is a major step, they say.
"It's a pretty big step for the Security Council to take," notes Allen Weiner, a former State Department attorney specializing in international law and now a senior lecturer at the Stanford Law School. The sanctions, he says, "are not as much as we might like, but they are not bad."