SEOUL, South Korea – A top South Korean diplomat said Thursday that in intercepting a ship with North Korean-made missiles, the United States sent a warning it "won't sit back and do nothing" if the North keeps exporting Scud weapons.
Impoverished North Korea has exported missiles to earn badly needed cash for years. In arms control negotiations with the administration of then President Clinton, Pyongyang asked for $1 billion in annual aid for three years in return for stopping missile exports. But the deal was never signed.
President Bush has said North Korea is part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and Iran, and administration officials have worried that the reclusive Communist dictatorship has become a prime seller of missiles to countries such as Iran and Libya.
The interception Tuesday of the ship bound for Yemen "again showed that North Korea is exporting missiles and the United States is not going to sit back and do nothing," said Shim Yoon-jo, chief of the Foreign Ministry's North America Bureau.
Following high-level contact Wednesday between Yemeni and U.S. officials, the U.S. Navy released the freighter with its shipment of North Korean missiles, allowing it to continue its journey to Yemen.
"The development is meant to serve as a warning signal against North Korea and countries buying missiles from the North," Shim said during a briefing to South Korean journalists.
U.S. intelligence officials watched the unflagged ship for weeks as part of an interdiction operation in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, before it was stopped by the Spanish navy and boarded by U.S. authorities. It carried 15 Scud missiles hidden in a cargo of cement.
"By shipping missiles into the Middle East, North Korea has challenged [U.S. President Bush's] two most important foreign policy goals — fighting terrorism and weapons proliferation," said Park June-young, a professor at Seoul's Yonsei University.
Kim Tae-woo, an expert on North Korean weapons programs, said halting the vessel shows that "North Korea comes right after Iraq in Bush's schedule of action" in his campaign against weapons proliferation.
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.
U.S. officials say North Korea told them in October that it had a secret program to enrich uranium to make nuclear weapons. The Bush administration has vowed to try to solve the problem through diplomacy.