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Another North Korean Vessel Intercepted, Turned Around

In an incident reminiscent of the Kang Nam I incident, a U.S. Navy ship has forced another suspected North Korean arms ship to turn around at sea, rather than face the risk of being searched in port. David Sanger of the New York Times reports:

The most recent episode began after American officials tracked a North Korean cargo ship, the M/V Light, that was believed to have been involved in previous illegal shipments. Suspecting that it was carrying missile components, they dispatched a Navy vessel, the destroyer McCampbell, to track it.

“This case had an interesting wrinkle: the ship was North Korean, but it was flagged in Belize,” one American official said, meaning it was registered in that Central American nation, perhaps to throw off investigators.

But Belize is a member of the Proliferation Security Initiative, an effort begun by President George W. Bush’s administration to sign up countries around the world to interdict suspected unconventional weapons. It is an effort that, like the military and C.I.A. drone programs, Mr. Obama has adopted, and one of the rare areas where he has praised his predecessor.

According to American officials, the authorities in Belize gave permission to the United States to inspect the ship.

On May 26, somewhere south of Shanghai, the McCampbell caught up with the cargo ship and hailed it, asking to board the vessel under the authority given by Belize. Four times, the North Koreans refused.

As in the 2009 case, which involved the North Korean vessel the Kong Nam 1, the White House was unwilling to forcibly board the ship in international waters, fearing a possible firefight and, in the words of one official, a spark “that could ignite the Korean peninsula. Moreover, the Americans did not have definitive proof of what was in the containers — and a mistake would have been embarrassing.

Wait till you read what happened when the White House confronted the Burmese with the evidence.

Various nations have now intercepted multiple North Korean arms shipments since the passage of U.N. Security Council 1874, which prohibits North Korea from selling weapons. In some cases, the cargo was seized; in other cases, because of a loophole in the resolution that prevents the boarding of the ships on the high seas, the shipments were merely turned around and forced to return to North Korea.

June 2009: In the first test of UNSCR 1874’s interdiction provisions, the U.S.S. John S. McCain, Jr. shadows the North Korean Kang Nam I, suspected of carrying arms from North Korea to Burma. The North Korean ship eventually turns around and heads home, reportedly after the Burmese authorities accede to U.S. demands to “search” the ship in port.

August 2009: In an incident that’s never fully explained, Indian authorities search a North Korean ship in their territorial waters after ferry passengers point to the ship’s suspicious behavior. No word on what was found on the ship.

August 2009: The UAE searches several containers aboard a Bahamian-flagged ship that are headed from North Korea to Iran. They containers are filled with rocket-propelled grenades of the same kind that Iran manufactures, but which are perfect for terrorist use in a less traceable form. And as I’m sure most of you have heard, North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss.

October 2009: South Korea seizes four North Korean containers; no word on what’s inside.

– December 2009: An Soviet-built Il-76 cargo plane makes an emergency landing in Bangkok. Authorities search the plane and find it filled with weapons bound for Iran, including ballistic missile parts and man-portable surface-to-air missiles.

February 2010: South Africa seizes containers filled with tank parts, shipped under a false bill of lading, for one of the warring parties in the civil war in D.R. Congo.

To an extent, North Korea has been able to evade the effect of sanctions by shipping its cargo through China, which turns a blind eye to North Korea’s proliferation whenever it can get away with it. That previously included occasions when suspicious North Korean planes were sitting on the tarmac at Beijing, while Condi Rice was cabling the Chinese government.

For all of the criticism from the Bush Administration’s adventurism, its record of enforcement against the North Koreans was flaccid. Recall that Bush himself allowed the So San to deliver its cargo of missiles to Yemen, even after Spanish marines forcibly boarded it. For all the hyperventilations from future Obama voters about Bush’s supposed unilateralism, he decided to let the shipment go (a) to appease the Yemeni government, which probably was worth something to us, but also (b) because he didn’t have a U.N. resolution authorizing the boarding. The latter defense can’t be offered for his 2007 decision to green-light a shipment of tank parts to Ethiopia, just months after John Bolton pushed through UNSCR 1718. But at least Bolton’s legacy has found new life — ironically, during the Barack Obama Administration. Who’d have guessed?