A week of high drama ends; missiles in Yemen They’re ours! [Archives:2002/51/Front Page]

December 16 2002

By Reuters and
Yemen Times News Services
ADEN – Days after the United States released the North Korean ship that carried them, Yemen received a shipment of 15 Scud missiles from North Korea.
“The North Korean ship arrived at Hodeida port and immediately started unloading,” a port official told Reuters on Saturday.
The So San first arrived in Yemen late on Friday at Al Mukalla port on the Arabian Sea after the United States released it on Wednesday, admitting that North Korea was not violating any law by transporting the missile cargo.
The ship had earlier been intercepted by the Spanish Navy in the Arabian Sea. Spain said 15 Scud missiles, 15 conventional warheads and 85 drums of unidentified chemicals were found hidden under cement bags on the ship.
The ship carrying the missiles was stopped by two vessels from the Spanish navy participating in Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S.-led global anti-terrorism coalition, said Alberto Martinez Arias, a spokesman for Spain’s Defence Ministry in Madrid.
Crews from the Spanish ships Navarra and Patino stopped the unflagged ship Sosan east of the island of Socotora and called U.S. authorities for assistance, Martinez said. The Spanish navy stopped and boarded the ship after its crew refused to identify themselves.
The North Korean captain of the Sosan initially told Spanish officials the ship was carrying cement. The missiles were discovered shortly thereafter, Martinez said.
The shipment raised U.S. concerns that it might end up in the hands of a third party.
Yemen said on Thursday the Scud missiles and warheads were aimed at boosting its defenses in a troubled region, but promised that it did not plan to buy more.
The release of the ship appeared to defuse a potentially explosive situation in a region where tensions have been high since the United States made clear it was prepared to go to war with Iraq over its suspected weapons of mass destruction.
The Scud is a crude, Soviet-designed ballistic missile which can carry nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Scuds are inaccurate but that may not matter if the warhead is a weapon of mass destruction.
Yemeni officials said Sanaa bought the Scuds in 1999 at the height of border tensions with neighboring Saudi Arabia and Eritrea. Both disputes have been resolved since.
Yemen is trying to shed an image as a haven for Muslim militants and has arrested dozens of al Qaeda suspects in a major crackdown as part of the U.S.-led war on terror.
It inherited an unspecified number of Scuds from South Yemen after it united with the pro-Western North in 1990. Southern rebels used them against the north in the civil war of 1994.
Earlier in the week US Whitehouse spokesman Ariel Fleischer said there is no provision under international law prohibiting Yemen from accepting delivery of missiles from North Korea.
“While there is authority to stop and search, in this instance there is no clear authority to seize the shipment of Scud missiles from North Korea to Yemen and therefore the merchant vessel is being released,” Fleischer said.
Fleischer went out of his way to say the United States has no diplomatic complaints against Yemen, underscoring that Yemen is not only a sovereign government but also a reliable partner in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.
“I think that Yemen understands the United States’ commitment to making certain that terrorist regimes in the area do not receive weapons,” Fleischer said.
The decision to release the ship came after US Vice-President Dick Cheney tried to persuade President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen to give up delivery of the battlefield-range missiles, the same kind Yemen has bought from North Korea before.
Cheney then consulted with US President George Bush, and afterward the Yemeni leader — who also spoke today with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell — was told that he could have the ship’s contents.
Administration officials said Saleh had agreed to keep control of the missiles and not pass them on to either Iraq or terrorist groups. The State Department spokesman, Richard A. Boucher, also said Secretary Powell had received assurances from Saleh that no more Scuds would be bought from North Korea.
Cheney’s involvement underscored the sensitivity of the diplomatic task. He and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have been outspoken about the need to cut off North Korea’s sources of income and highly critical of its sale of weapons to other countries.
But administration officials acknowledged that it was impossible not to yield to Yemen’s request for the missiles because of its strategic location and its cooperation in the American fight against Al Qaeda.
Asked whether the United States had thought Iraq — which has no history of buying from North Korea — was the intended recipient of the missiles, American officials said it had been considered a possibility.
If Iraq had been the buyer, not only would confiscating the shipment have been legal under United Nations resolutions, but Iraq would also have been in material breach of those resolutions. The missiles would have given the United States grounds for war.
Fleischer called the effort against the freighter “a very successful coalition interdiction.”
But that was apparently cold comfort to Mr. Bush, whom a senior official described as “a very, very unhappy man” after deciding to send the ship on its way to Yemen.
Veterans of the former US Clinton administration, described by Bush and his aides during the presidential campaign as being too soft on North Korea, said they were stunned by the decision to release the cargo.
“The administration’s actions in this case were confused and contradictory,” said Robert Einhorn, who led the nonproliferation efforts in the State Department under Clinton.
“They must have known the nature of the cargo and the destination from the beginning,” he said. “They should have determined at the outset whether they were ready to see it through. Now, having reversed themselves, how can they go to other countries and try to discourage them from purchasing North Korean missiles?”
The Bush administration in August imposed sanctions on the North Korean company Changgwang Sinyong Corp. for selling Scud missile parts to Yemen. At that time, U.S. authorities asked Yemen why it bought the parts, and that country apologized and promised not to do so again, two defence officials said Wednesday.
The United States and other countries interested in preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction have banded together under the Missile Technology Control Regime to try to discourage exports of such technology.
Under the U.S. sanctions, Changgwang Sinyong Corp. will be barred for two years from obtaining new individual export licenses through the Commerce or State departments for any controlled MTCR items. The sanctions have little practical effect, one official said, because there is so little commerce between the United States and North Korea. But the official said they reinforce Bush’s message that North Korea spreads dangerous technology.
“It is necessary to heighten vigilance against the U.S. strategy for world supremacy and `anti-terrorism war,’” the North’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said in an editorial. “All countries are called upon to build self-reliant military power by their own efforts.”
Yemen has been a nominal ally in the global war on terrorism despite strained relations with Washington. Yemen is Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland, was the site of the bombing of a U.S. warship and has vast areas where Al Qaeda members and other terrorists are believed to hide out.
North Korea shocked U.S. officials by admitting in October that it had a secret program to enrich uranium to make nuclear weapons. The U.S. administration has vowed to try to solve the problem through diplomacy, though Bush already had named North Korea as part of a three-country “axis of evil” and administration officials have worried that the reclusive Communist dictatorship has become a seller of missiles to countries such as Iran and Libya.
The U.S. administration met the discovery with a measured reaction, declining to characterize either how much concern it raised among U.S. officials or the range of options for a response. A White House spokesman for national security issues said the United States would enlist the help of U.S. allies in the region to fashion its next move – a decidedly diplomatic, and possibly slow, approach.
“This is an issue of concern,” said spokesman Sean McCormack. “We are working with other governments to figure out the next step.”