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Yemeni SCUDs, Pyongyang, and U.S. Nonproliferation Policy

3:00 PM, Dec 12, 2002 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI
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THIS WEEK, after pulling off one of the most remarkable interdictions in naval history and succeeding for the first time in making nonproliferation something more than a feel-good slogan, the Bush administration concluded that it had made a mistake. Announcing December 10 that the Spanish Navy with U.S. assistance had intercepted an unflagged North Korean ship carrying 15 hidden SCUD missiles, the White House decided the following day to release the shipment to its intended recipient, the government of Yemen.

Never mind that North Korea had shipped the nuclear-capable missiles in an unmarked vessel in contravention of a 1992 U.N. Security Council declaration that found proliferation of all kinds to be a threat to international peace and security; or that Yemen had promised the United States last year that it would not buy any more North Korean missiles. Overlook that the same day the White House released the missiles, it also announced its new strategy for combating the proliferation--a strategy in which interdicting the illicit trade in weapons of mass destruction was prominently highlighted. Ignore that the money Pyongyang received for the missiles is probably being spent to resume nuclear weapons production in violation of at least four nonproliferation agreements. The United States, according to White House officials, lacks any legal authority to impound the shipment. And besides, they insist, Yemen, a new-found partner in the fight against terrorism, can be trusted with the SCUDs, even though their importation would normally trigger U.S. nonproliferation sanctions.

What are we to make of this? We have special forces in Yemen trying to hunt down al Qaeda operatives. Jeopardizing these operations by offending the Yemeni government would hardly be prudent. The government of Yemen, moreover, made it clear that the SCUDs were theirs and that we should cough them up. Rather than back the 1992 U.N. Security Council declaration, emphasize our sanctions laws, or offer some other form of face-saving compensation to Yemen, we simply and quickly complied. Our immediate war against terrorism trumped our long-term struggle against proliferation.

This is putting the best face on the decision. Now consider the complications that arise from this short-term expedience. China, Russia, and Pakistan are at least as much on our side in the war against terrorism as Yemen is. They are also are among the world's worst proliferators. They have sent nuclear weapons-making technology and long-range rockets to Iran, nuclear enrichment plants for nuclear bombs to Pyongyang, and all manner of illicit arms assistance to some of the scariest regimes in the Middle East. In each case, we decided to look the other way. Meanwhile, in Pakistan--a nation with 50 or more bombs of its own-popular opinion is swinging behind al Qaeda and against the United States. What if a future Pakistani government choose to back al Qaeda with its bombs? Suddenly, the distinction between the immediate concern of terrorism and the long-term headache of proliferation seems pretty gray.

Then there is the question of exactly who's on our side and who's not. Or, stated differently: Is there any nation, besides Iraq, that we wouldn't trust with a few nuclear-capable missiles? What if the SCUD shipment had been going to Iran? Iran recently allowed the United States access to Iraqi resistance groups based in Iran. Would it have been worth upsetting Tehran at this delicate moment? One would like to think the answer is yes, and that somehow White House officials would read international law differently (or would at least impound the cargo for evaluation and slow-roll its release).

Yet, if we are to believe the White House's spin on the Yemen decision, their most probable answer for this hypothetical would be no. In fact, the White House press office claimed the Yemen incident was helpful in highlighting the lack of any clear international authority over such matters and in spotlighting the need for additional international restraints on missile proliferation.

How seriously one should take this last suggestion is anyone's guess. It is worth noting, however, that just two weeks ago in the Hague, the Bush administration signed an International Code Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation-a feel-good idea first broached during the Clinton years. Unlike the Missile Technology Control Regime, which is much more restrictive, this code imposes no limits on cruise missiles. Nor does it prohibit countries that currently lack ballistic missiles from acquiring them or even intercontinental-range space launch vehicles so long as they promise--as North Korea, Iraq, and Iran already have--not to develop nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Finally, it supports missile-related technology cooperation, although it doesn't quite explain what this might be. The agreement, in short, is wooly-headed.