The interception of a ship allegedly carrying North Korean missiles underlines U.S. concerns about the communist country's arms-dealing as Washington tries to force it to abandon its nuclear weapons program and fight global terror, analysts said.
U.S. officials say North Korea is the world's No. 1 supplier of missile technology, and its clients have included Syria, Iran and Libya.
"This is an example of precisely the type of activity that is at the center of U.S. concerns about the North," said Scott Snyder, head of the Asia Foundation office in Seoul.
"Most American officials see the most dangerous aspect of the current North Korean activity as the supply of capacity that could result in further tension or escalation in the Middle East," he said.
The White House announced Tuesday that a ship carrying a dozen Scud-type missiles believed to originate in North Korea was intercepted in the Arabian Sea.
The ship was stopped and boarded Tuesday about 600 miles east of the Horn of Africa after close tracking by U.S. intelligence. U.S. officials said the missiles were at least initially headed for Yemen.
There was no immediate reaction from North Korea.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage shared information about the ship when he met South Korean Defense Minister Lee June on Tuesday, said a Defense Ministry spokesman who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Everyone has known that North Korea is exporting missiles, and the real question is what the United States has in mind in the interception of the ship," said Lee Jong-sok, a security expert in Seoul's independent Sejong Institute.
"As long as this ship did not carry missiles bound for Iraq, as long as it was not carrying any long-range missiles, I don't think this episode will explode into a major security crisis," Lee said.
The United States is mustering international pressure to force the communist state, which President Bush called an "axis of evil" country, to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Cash-strapped North Korea for years has used missiles exports as a means of survival. Experts have said North Korea may earn up to $100 million a year in missile exports.
The North has not conducted a missile test since 1998, when it alarmed the region by firing a rocket over Japan and into the Pacific.
Although North Korea has promised not to launch missile test flights until after 2003 in a self-imposed moratorium, U.S. defense analysts say the North conducted several tests of missile engines last year, possibly for its latest project: the long-range Taepodong-2.
On Nov. 25, the United States, Russia and 90 other countries signed a "code of conduct" intended to control the spread of ballistic missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.
However, North Korea — as well as China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq — were not signatories. The agreement is not legally binding.