Intercepting N Korean ships could stir up hornets' nest: Could start a war

WEIGHING OPTIONS: The US is gung-ho about stopping North Korean ships it suspects of transporting weapons, but a lack of allies' enthusiasm may give cause for pause

Taipie Times

Wednesday, Sep 03, 2003,Page 5

A group of 11 nations led by the US is preparing to deploy an armada to intercept ships and aircraft suspected of proliferating weapons of mass destruction.

They might be wise to take along a legal document.

The hotly debated Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to block countries -- specifically North Korea -- from exporting such arms on ships or in planes risks contravening international law, experts and academics say.

"Operationally, when you start stopping ships in international waters or intercept flights, that's a cause for war," said one regional expert and academic who declined to be identified.

"That's very serious stuff."

On top of that, the initiative could also be very badly timed.

The 11 countries on board the initiative meet in Paris this week for more talks on how to proceed with implementation of the interdiction -- or interception -- in the air and at sea of suspect craft.

However, last week's talks in Beijing among China, the US, the two Koreas, Russia and Japan on how to end Pyongyang's nuclear program may give cause for pause in the operation as countries try to give diplomacy time to work.

The 11 participants in the interception initiative agreed in Brisbane in July to hold military exercises.

US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security John Bolton said at the time that that consensus amounted to authority to the US to launch such interceptions at once.

The only Asian participants are Australia and Japan. The others taking part are the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain.

Neighbors absent

Significantly, none of North Korea's immediate neighbors has signed up since the initiative was first agreed in Madrid in mid-June.

While the initiative is not specifically aimed at North Korea, few doubt its target is the reclusive communist state, which Washington and others accuse of making clandestine shipments of drugs, counterfeit cash and missiles.

Indeed, impoverished North Korea may well decide to follow the course of discretion by keeping any shipments in port for the present while negotiations on its nuclear program proceed along their slow, and doubtless halting, path in Beijing.

"It would be unwise to allow anything that went on in Paris to upset the apple cart in Beijing," said Scott Burchill, lecturer in international relations at Deakin University in Melbourne.

In any case, differences have emerged between even such close allies as the US and Australia.

"The US is far more comfortable with the idea of interdiction," Burchill said.

"The legal advice the Australian government has received is that there is a fine line between interdiction and piracy, and it is not clear where that line is drawn," he said, adding that one mistake could mark a very serious breach of international law.

"The US is prepared to take greater risks," he said, referring to US determination to pursue its war on terror.

"Australia has to be more circumspect," he said.

That circumspection may be seen in Australia's Crocodile 2003 military exercises due this month in the Coral Sea.

Officials have hinted those exercises will be used to train in the boarding of vessels. But a spokesman said on Monday that it was still too early to say if such operations were planned.

"Certainly the government did not task defense to join in that sort of PSI exercise," said a spokesman in Canberra.


Australian officials have said military and civilian exercises would be held in various parts of the world, including the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, possibly as soon as this month.

Another task in Paris for the group of 11 would be to look at ways to strengthen intelligence and information sharing.

Intelligence sharing has proved crucial in enabling security forces to intercept ships in national waters -- a much less controversial operation.

Taiwan last month seized 158 barrels of chemicals from a North Korean ship for inspection on a tip-off that the chemicals may be dangerous. In April, Australian special forces intercepted a North Korean-owned ship carrying 50kg of heroin.

"What seems to be the top priority concern is that North Korea might export nuclear components to other countries," said the academic. "If that is the top concern, then PSI is virtually impossible to achieve because nuclear components can be about the size of a football.

"It could be put in a backpack, in a leaded container and walked across the Yalu river into China," he said. "It is very hard to identify and to stop and virtually impossible if bordering countries don't participate."