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North Korea: Missile Smuggling Case Leaves Many Questions Unanswered

  • Charles Recknagel

The high-seas drama of a Spanish naval ship interdicting a vessel smuggling missiles from North Korea to the Arabian Peninsula has ended with the Yemeni government saying the weapons are part of an old but legitimate order from Pyongyang. But plenty of questions remain, such as why the legitimate order was hidden aboard a ship carrying cement. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the events and what they tell about the murky world of arms trading between North Korea and other states.

Prague, 12 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- This week's drama in the Arabian Sea began the way many action films end.

After U.S. intelligence agents detected a mysterious ship sailing out of North Korea with no flag and its name concealed by paint, they secretly tracked its progress to the Arabian Peninsula. There, a waiting Spanish frigate -- operating as part of a NATO fleet patrolling the region for the war on terror -- intercepted the boat, firing a shot across its bow to force it to halt.

Then, Spanish marines rappelled down ropes from a helicopter to the ship's deck after snipers shot away the vessel's mast cables to clear the way for the assault. The crew was rounded up and the cargo of potential weapons of mass destruction exposed.

The drama was riveting because the catch included 15 Scud missiles, as well as conventional warheads and rocket fuel. The missiles, disassembled and concealed under 40,000 bags of cement, have the capability to carry chemical, biological, or nuclear payloads.

But if the story seemed to reach a satisfying end with the announcement of the ship's capture, real-life complications soon set in. In a burst of international phone calls, an angry Yemeni government told Washington it had ordered the missiles and demanded their delivery. And Washington, which leads the antiterror coalition, acceded.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell explained Washington's decision by saying, "We recognized that [the cargo] was going to a country that we have good relations with, and after a flurry of phone calls and after getting assurances directly from the president of Yemen, President [Ali Abdullah] Saleh, that this was the last of a group of shipments that go back some years and have been contracted for some years ago, this would be the end of it, and we had assurances that these missiles were for Yemeni defensive purposes and under no circumstances would they be going anywhere else."

But if Powell's statement put to rest the most pressing concern over the missiles -- that they might be bound for Iraq or a terrorist group -- it also left unexplained a host of contradictions surrounding the affair. These include why North Korea was smuggling a legitimate arms order to Yemen and what use Yemen has for the weapons.

Paul Beaver, an independent defense analyst based in London, says those questions can only get speculative answers right now. But he says some of the motives behind the events can be deduced from what is known about the ship's cargo.

The analyst says North Korea was smuggling the missiles to Yemen because -- even though Pyongyang is entitled under international law to sell its weapons, and Yemen to buy them -- Washington punishes North Korea's missile trade with other states.

The punishment has come in the form of U.S. sanctions, put on North Korean companies seven times since 1992, for violations of the Missile Control Technology Regime (MCTR), a treaty signed by 92 countries which binds states not to export surface-to-surface missiles or their components. Neither North Korea nor Yemen are signatories to the treaty but Washington has demonstrated with sanctions that it is ready to hold even nonsignatories to the treaty's terms.

Beaver says North Korea's hiding the missiles under tons of cement bags showed its desire to neither lose the cargo in a seizure nor compromise its customer, the Yemeni government.

"Why does North Korea, when it's acting in accordance with international law, although we might not like it -- why do they try to smuggle [the missiles]? And I think the answer must be because it is Yemen, because there is the proximity of Saudi Arabia, the problems with Al-Qaeda, and other things that link to that."

Under American pressure, Yemen in July 2001 signed a commitment to stop buying North Korean missile equipment in exchange for avoiding U.S. sanctions for previous such deals. But Yemen was able to convince Washington to release the ship seized this week by claiming the missiles were the last part of a weapons shipment ordered prior to its deal with the U.S.

Yet even as Yemen finally got its 15 new missiles, it has yet to say why it ordered the weapons or how it will use them. It is still not clear which generation of North Korean Scuds Yemen received, but potential models vary in range from 240 to 400 kilometers and cost some $13 million apiece.

Daniel Neep, a Mideast expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says that the Yemeni government has no clear need for Scud missiles since its current principal problems are domestic.

These problems include quarrels with tribal leaders who do not recognize central authority. They also include problems cracking down on suspected Al-Qaeda cells that use Yemen as a base, from which they bombed a U.S. warship in Aden two years ago and launched an attack on a French oil tanker two months ago.

Yemen's only foreign tensions are with Saudi Arabia, with whom it shares a border that is yet to be fully demarcated. But the two countries officially stopped feuding over the border last year when they contracted a German firm to define it and pulled their troops back from sensitive zones. The dispute had sparked armed clashes since the 1930s.

Neep says that despite having no clear use for the missiles, President Saleh may have ordered them to bolster Yemen's domestic image as a power not to be challenged.

"The fact that the government is able to deploy this kind of weapon, to obtain them, first of all, and then to show them, [may include] an element of trying to impress the local population and assure them that the Yemeni government is actually a force to be reckoned with."

In allowing the delivery of the missiles, Washington accepted Yemen's promise that it would not pass them on to anyone else. But the U.S. harshly criticized North Korea -- which it terms part of the "axis of evil" -- for making available missiles which can be used to carry mass destruction warheads.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld yesterday called cash-strapped Pyongyang -- whose weapons sales are its sole source of foreign currency -- the world's "single largest proliferator" of missile technology. All Western missile producers have -- as part of the MCTR -- stopped selling missiles to developing nations, making North Korea today the sole remaining source.

The tensions over the missile shipment look set to further escalate an ongoing crisis between North Korea and Washington. The U.S., South Korea and Japan decided last month to suspend annual oil shipments to the country in protest of the North's suspected secret development of nuclear arms. North Korea said today it will retaliate by immediately reactivating nuclear facilities which Washington has previously accused it of using to develop nuclear weapons capabilities.

Pyongyang had previously frozen the use of its military facilities in a 1994 deal with the U.S. under which it received fuel oil and other assistance in compensation.

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