North Korea: too many holes in the net?

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By Sol Sanders

Sol W. Sanders

September 9, 2003

Mid-September finds the U.S. and three of its allies practicing anti-piracy drills in the Coral Sea:, an appropriate venue for what historians might call World War III. The U.S., Australia, Japan and Ý yes Ý France, are holding maneuvers for President Bush’s Proliferation Security Initiative [PSI]. Eleven countries signed on to halt transport of weapons of mass destruction [WMD], delivery systems, and components, by pariah states and international non-state terrorists.

For international legality the operation takes off on the January 1992 UN Security Council statement that WMD proliferation poses a threat to international peace and security. Washington aims at involving states that have a stake in non-proliferation to stop the flow of such items by sea, air, or land. Under U.S. prompting, two meetings have taken place in short order [given the usual molasses to achieve “the modalities” in such efforts]. Out of this has come a set of principles.

In fact, actions have already taken place. Almost two years ago Indian authorities grabbed a North Korean missiles plant [antiquated but still valuable to a less developed arms maker], probably destined for Libya. In the most dramatic episode, last summer Spanish forces in the Indian Ocean, seized North Korean missiles sailing under a pirate flag. But demonstrating the complexity of such encounters, the U.S. released the shipment to court support in chaotic Yemen for acquiescence for U.S. terrorist kills along its tribal border with Saudi Arabia, the ancestral home of Osma Ben Ladin. Alas! There were unconfirmed reports the released vessel later returned to North Korea with chemicals from Germany destined for Pyongyang’s nuclear activities. German authorities earlier moved against notoriously flagrant abuses by components shippers to overseas buyers including Sadaam Hussein. Australian officials grabbed a North Korea ship carrying drugs. The Japanese, after hemming and hawing, have begun thorough searches of visiting North Korean ships Ýlong known to be in drug smuggling and abductions of Japanese citizens whose stolen identities were to be used for Pyongyang’s notorious espionage and terrorist activities.

This cat and mouse game, like so much of the war on terrorism, comes down to elaborate tracking of dual use [civilian and lethal applications], commercial transactions, collaboration of domestic regulatory and police agencies within the participating countries [not a small problem historically in the U.S. as the sifting of 9/11 has shown], and, finally, the willingness of our allies to cooperate and others who have self-interest in preventing WMD proliferation.

Some have argued this is the only “solution” the U.S. has to the conundrum of North Korea and its inventory of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, which it might sell not only to pariah states but to international non-state terrorists. Given North Korea’s state terrorism and its contribution to missile proliferation this threat is real. Buying off the bankrupt North Koreans Ý as the Clinton Administration tried in 1993-4 Ý would be useless without verification. And as Iraq and Iran have demonstrated, such verification is impossible without the active collaboration of the host government, again not guaranteed by Pyongyang whatever its pronouncements. The third and most fearsome strategy would be military. This presents a formidable problem with a third of the South Korea’s population in Greater Seoul under the guns of North Korean artillery just north of the often violated Demilitarized Zone.

The problem is, of course, will all the actors play. Pyongyang in its bombastic way has said that such a blockade will constitute an act of war and it would retaliate Ý Japan, as we found out in 1998 when the North Koreans flew a missile over its territory into the Pacific, is vulnerable.

Faced with the starkness of the North Korean options, Washington has come to rely heavily on China. Beijing keeps North Korea afloat with fuel and other supplies. But China has already expressed opposition to the whole effort.. However, it was Beijing which got Pyongyang to a six countries meeting in August although it produced little more than more North Korean bombastic threats. Walking through the graveyard at midnight, Sec. of Powell whistled that relations between Beijing and the U.S. have never been better. China has, the optimists argue, a vested interest to halting North Korean nuclear armament setting off a Northeast Asia nuclear arms race Ý including Japan.

Still Beijing has been a source of North Korea’s missile technology, its linked companies have helped sell the missiles, and there are reports only recently missiles passed through Chinese air space enroute to the Mideast. With some Chinese military semipublicly talking about the U.S. as a threat to China, there is undoubtedly divided counsel at the highest echelons in Beijing; having little brother kick Washington in the shins isn’t a bad asymmetrical war tactic the China’s generals so often talk about.

The holes in the net may be too big to mend.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World

September 9, 2003

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