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U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
June 2, 2022
U.S. Stops Then Releases Shipment of N. Korean missiles
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Paul Kerr

Spanish and U.S. forces intercepted and searched a ship December 9 carrying a shipment of Scud missiles and related cargo from North Korea to Yemen. The United States, however, said it lacked the necessary legal authority to seize the cargo and decided to allow the shipment to be delivered.

The ship, named the So San, was unflagged, and its “name and the indications of nationality…were obscured,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said December 11. Spain’s defense minister, Federico Trillo, said that two Spanish naval vessels stopped the ship in the Arabian Sea on December 9, according to a December 11 Spanish media report. He added that Spanish naval personnel boarded and searched the vessel, which was carrying a concealed shipment of 15 complete Scud missiles, 15 warheads, and missile fuel. U.S. naval forces also participated in the search, according to a December 11 statement from Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Spain stopped the ship at the request of the United States, according to Boucher. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer explained December 11 that Washington possessed intelligence that the ship was carrying missiles to the Middle East. The United States had been tracking the ship since shortly after it left port in North Korea, Fleischer added, and was concerned “about where its ultimate destination might have been,” apparently a reference to Iraq.

The incident occurred shortly before the Bush administration publicly issued its National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. (See ACT, January/February 2003.) The document lists interdicting and preventing the flow of weapons materials and technology as part of the U.S. counterproliferation strategy.

Boucher said that the Spanish ship conducted the boarding because “it was at the right place at the right time.” Spain contributes naval assets to U.S. Central Command—whose area of responsibility includes the Arabian Sea—in support of U.S. military efforts against terrorism, according to a June 14 Defense Department fact sheet.

Yemen protested the ship’s seizure in a December 11 letter to the United States, saying that it had purchased the missiles for defensive purposes, according to a December 11 report from Saba, Yemen’s official news agency. Yemen promised that the missiles would not be transferred to a third party, the letter added.

The ship was released after a series of phone conversations between Vice President Dick Cheney and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, as well as Powell and Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qurbi, according to Boucher. Boucher acknowledged the assurances in Yemen’s letter and added that Yemen had informed Washington that it would no longer purchase missiles from North Korea. The missiles arrived in Yemen December 14, Saba reported December 15.

Fleischer said that the United States had the authority to stop the ship because it was unflagged but that Washington decided to release the ship because it lacked “clear authority to seize the shipment.” Fleischer also suggested that Yemen’s status as an ally in anti-terrorism efforts was an important factor in the decision, saying that Yemen “does not provide a threat to the United States.”

The transfer of missiles, however, raised concerns about Yemen’s relationship with North Korea. Pyongyang’s sales of missiles and related components have long been a source of concern to the United States. Powell called North Korea “one of the great proliferators on the face of the Earth” in his December 11 statement.

The Scud purchase also called into question Yemen’s previous commitments to stop purchasing missiles from Pyongyang. Boucher said in his December 11 statement that Yemen had committed to ending its missile purchases in 2001 and again this past August, after the United States imposed sanctions on a North Korean corporation and the North Korean government for transferring missile technology to Yemen. (See ACT, September 2002.) Yemen stated in its December 11 letter that this most recent shipment was made to fulfill contracts “concluded very long ago”—prior to its commitments to Washington.

When asked about the possibility of sanctioning Yemen, Boucher indicated that Washington chose to waive sanctions this past August, which “otherwise would have been imposed,” because of Yemen’s assistance in combating terrorism and its agreement to end missile purchases from Pyongyang. He added that these waivers would likely “continue to apply.”

The North Korean Foreign Ministry condemned the interdiction of the ship in a December 13 statement cited by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, referring to the naval action as “unpardonable piracy that wantonly encroached upon the sovereignty” of North Korea.

Fleischer suggested that the incident might prompt the United States to strengthen international controls on the transfer of missile technology, although he did not provide additional details. The United States is a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime and in November signed the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. (See ACT, January/February 2003.) Neither Yemen nor North Korea are members of either regime, both of which attempt to control the proliferation of missile technology.