US to send signal to North Koreans in naval exercise

The New York Times

Reprinted in

August 18, 2003

WASHINGTON, Monday, Aug. 18 — The Bush administration, while preparing for talks soon with North Korea, is also stepping up military pressure with plans for a joint naval exercise next month to train for interdicting at sea arms and other materials being transported to and from the North.

Administration officials and Asian diplomats said that the exercise would be carried out in the Coral Sea off northeastern Australia in September and that it was officially described as directed at no one country. A principal intention, however, was to send a sharp signal to North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, they said.

The next round of talks with North Korea is planned for Aug. 27 in Beijing, with six nations taking part. The United States has been working with its allies to decide which items to present, from economic benefits to security guarantees, that would be provided if the North Korean government agreed to shut down its program verifiably and irreversibly.

North Korea said today that unless the United States changed its policy toward it, the North would use the talks to declare that it could not dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

The official North Korean news agency said such a change in American policy must include the signing of a nonaggression pact, the establishment of formal diplomatic relations and a guarantee that the United States would not interfere in North Korea's foreign trade.

The United States has stepped up efforts with Japan, South Korea and nine other nations to interdict ships doing business with North Korea. Last December, Spanish warships stopped a North Korean ship carrying Scud missiles to Yemen, but released it after Yemen protested

"We are not saying which countries are being targeted, because it would not be politically wise," said an Asian diplomat, referring to the September naval exercise. "But the American government believes that one of the reasons why North Korea has agreed to the six-party talks in Beijing is that they are feeling the pinch."

An American official said the Coral Sea exercise would consist in part of ships and helicopters practicing the "nonpermissive boarding" of ships suspected of carrying drugs, missile components, nuclear materials and other items that the United States says are being imported or sold by North Korea.

Some diplomats are known to worry that exercises like the one in the Coral Sea might be seen as provocative by the government of Kim Jong Il in North Korea, and perhaps by China and Russia, which oppose confrontational tactics toward North Korea.

But administration officials said it was essential for the United States to have a more aggressive policy aimed at preventing North Korea from obtaining materials for its nuclear program or from selling missile parts, drugs or other contraband to get hard currency to pay for its weapons.

The Coral Sea naval exercise "has not surfaced as much of a factor" in negotiations with North Korea, an administration official said, adding: "If laws are broken or our national security is threatened, then everyone should recognize that we need to take that seriously. We are taking these steps to protect our own societies."

A Pentagon official said planning for the Coral Sea exercise had not been completed. It was not clear which countries, beyond Australia and the United States, would take part with ships. Japan was said to be ready to send a ship if the event could be formally characterized as a "police exercise" and not a military exercise. The Japanese Constitution limits its military to self-defense.

The exercises are part of a program announced by President Bush and leaders of other countries at a meeting in Krakow, Poland, at the end of May known as the Proliferation Security Initiative, with 11 nations participating: the United States, Britain, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain.

The Coral Sea naval exercise is to be the Initiative's first such action, and its participants set plans for it in July at a meeting in Brisbane, Australia.

Under a separate program, known as the D.P.R.K. Illicit Activities Initiative, referring to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name, there has been a quiet crackdown by many nations against the North's narcotics trade, counterfeiting, money laundering and other efforts to earn hard currency.

Among the recent actions under this initiative was the seizure of a North Korean freighter by the Australian authorities in April off Brisbane on suspicion of smuggling heroin and Japanese efforts to shut down a large trading company involved in illicit trade with North Korea.

Organized crime syndicates in Japan have long been believed to be involved in sending remittances to North Korea, money that in many cases generated at pinball casinos that are popular in Japan.

In addition, in early August, the Taiwan authorities boarded a North Korean freighter on a technical customs violation and then found and seized barrels of phosphorus pentasulfide, a lethal material that the United States later said could be used to make chemical weapons.

The Coral Sea naval exercise is to be the Proliferation Security Initiative's first such action, and its participants set plans for it only last month at a meeting in Brisbane.

An administration official said the interdiction exercise would "piggyback" on top of another long-planned naval exercise. But a Pentagon official said that exercise would run concurrently but not as part of the interdiction exercise, which he described as in its "embryonic stages," with a scope that remains undetermined.

The Bush administration's efforts to squeeze North Korea by applying "interdiction" and "seizure" techniques were outlined in a statement by the United States and its allies at the Krakow meeting. This summer, John R. Bolton, under secretary of state for arms control and international security, testified in Congress that the goal was to develop "new means to disrupt the proliferation trade at sea, in the air, and on land." Mr. Bolton is one of the program's champions.

A meeting has been scheduled in Paris in September, after the Coral Sea exercise, to draft criteria for future interdiction efforts.

"We're going to try to reach agreement in Paris on rules of the road," an administration official said.

Some officials involved in the project concede that in some cases, such as the shipment of weapons that were bought or sold legally, the initiative could be hampered by international laws barring the interdiction of ships on the high seas. After authorizing the stopping of the Yemen-bound Scud missiles in December, the United States found no legal basis for blocking the shipment.

But officials familiar with the Coral Sea exercise said this problem could be circumvented in part if a new round of sanctions are imposed on North Korea, and also Iran, because of their refusal to cooperate on the nuclear issue. The sanctions might be used to justify future interdictions, the officials said.

The interdictions could also be carried out because of suspicion of a violation, they said, and then the searches could be conducted for illicit materials. An analogy, an official said, would be stopping a car for speeding when the real reason for the stop was to search for drugs.

The administration speeded up its efforts against North Korea after October, when the North admitted to a top American envoy that it had secretly embarked on a program to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, in violation of its 1994 agreement not to pursue such arms.