Bush administration officials acknowledged that boarding the ship and taking charge of its cargo probably violated international law.
Yemen gets N. Korea Scuds after assurances to U.S. Missiles for use in the defense of Persian Gulf nation
Barry Schweid Associated Press Dec. 12, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON - Skirting a face-off with Yemen, the United States on Wednesday let an intercepted shipment of North Korean missiles proceed to the Persian Gulf country after receiving assurances that the Scuds would not be transferred elsewhere in the tense region.
The agreement was reached through unusual high-level diplomacy involving Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell, on the one hand, and President Ali Abdallah Salih of Yemen on the other.
Spanish authorities, whose naval forces intercepted the ship in the Arabian Sea, also were deeply involved in the awkward negotiations, as was Cambodia, in Southeast Asia.
Bush administration officials acknowledged that boarding the ship and taking charge of its cargo probably violated international law. But administration decisionmakers were guided by concern about an influx of weapons into the Persian Gulf region just as the United States is considering force to disarm Iraq.
"We were very suspicious about the ship," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "At first one couldn't verify the nationality of the ship because the ship's name and the indications of nationality on the hull and the funnel were obscured. It was flying no flag."
Once Spanish and U.S. inspectors climbed aboard, they found "irregularities in the cargo and the documentation and the Scuds were found on board the ship," Boucher said.
"So a ship like this acting suspiciously in a sensitive part of the world carrying what might be missiles from North Korea is obviously going to get a lot of attention," he said.
Behind the scenes, there was disagreement within the administration. Powell concluded Yemen was entitled to the missiles because they had been purchased prior to a pledge Yemen made in July 2001 not to obtain any more weapons technology from North Korea.
But some Pentagon officials took the position that the pledge applied to prior contracts as well, and that Yemen was obliged not to take delivery of the weapons.
Powell, at a State Department luncheon at which he received an award from the American Academy of Diplomacy, said Salih offered assurance the shipment of Scuds would be the last weapons delivery from North Korea.
Powell denounced North Korea as "one of the great proliferators on the face of the Earth." He said the United States has been trying to make the case worldwide that the Communist regime poses dangers.
Powell said the good relationship between the United States and Yemen was one reason for permitting delivery of the Scuds. Bush administration officials have credited Yemen for about a year for cooperating in the U.S. campaign to counter terror.
After a "flurry of phone calls" and assurances from Salih to Cheney and Powell that "this would be the end of it," Powell said, the shipment was allowed to proceed.
Salih also assured the two that the missiles were intended for Yemen's self-defense and would not be turned over to any other country, Powell said.
Still, there was some consternation on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., objected to returning the missiles to Yemen, saying it "has a questionable record that includes past support of terrorist organizations."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking to reporters in Qatar, said the ship was intercepted because "there were questions about its flag, questions about its cargo and questions about its destination." The ship's contents were not on its manifest, he said.
Forces from the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau had been aboard the detained vessel since Tuesday awaiting orders on what to do with it and the weapons, Pentagon officials said.
The master of the ship said it was from Cambodia, but officials of the Southeast Asian country informed the United States they were not sure but approved boarding the ship, a U.S. official said.
The crew, meanwhile, claimed to be Cambodians but may have been North Koreans, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kerbi summoned U.S. Ambassador Edmund Hull to protest the seizure and ask for the return of the equipment, which was for "defensive purposes," a Yemeni official told the Associated Press in San'a.
U.S. intelligence officials had tracked the vessel for weeks, and the Spanish military stopped it Monday as it sailed 600 miles off the Horn of Africa.
The Bush administration in August imposed sanctions on the North Korean company Changgwang Sinyong Corp. for selling Scud missile parts to Yemen.