Will Offshore Searches Slow North Korean Nukes — Or Spark a Military Confrontation?

Will Offshore Searches Slow North Korean Nukes — Or Spark a Military Confrontation?

After more than 15 years of largely fruitless diplomacy, the U.S. and its allies are preparing a high-seas quarantine to try to ensure that North Korea’s nuclear knowledge doesn’t leach beyond its borders. While the details remain to be worked out, President Obama — after meeting with South Korea president Lee Myung-bak in Washington on Tuesday — indicated the battle to contain North Korea’s atomic aresenal is headed offshore. “This is not simply a U.S. policy — this is an international policy,” Obama said of the evolving plan to search North Korean vessels suspected of ferrying arms or nuclear components. “This was part of what the [U.N.] Security Council resolution calls for — the interdiction of arm shipments.”

The tough words could potentially lead to open hostilities. Pyongyang has repeatedly said that it views any forced inspections of its fleet to be an act of war, and an angry North Korea could fire on ships seeking to inspect one of its vessels, launching attacks from other ships in its navy, from shore batteries or missiles. “While North Korea’s most recent aggression has not yet led to violent outbreaks in the region, such clashes are a distinct possibility in the near future,” warned a report on North Korea issued Tuesday by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. “In fact, North Korea’s well-documented history of intentionally inciting small-scale violence makes escalation more likely.”

While the U.N. resolution doesn’t authorize the use of military force by navies conducting the interdictions, it does permit U.S. and allied warships to challenge vessels suspected of ferrying arms and nuclear components on the high seas. The international community, including traditional North Korean protector China, seems to be willing to try to thwart Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation efforts, as the New York Times first reported on Tuesday. “I’ve been talking with the Chinese since the late [1970s] about North Korea,” former U.S. negotiator Evans Revere, now president of the Korea Society, told a Senate panel last week. Beijing’s attitude is shifting. “I’ve had a couple of Chinese officials actually use the term ‘security liability’ in their descriptions of North Korea today,” Revere said.

Under last week’s U.N. resolution, once the U.S. or its allies locate a suspect ship, they would then request permission to come aboard to inspect its contents from the North Korean government, not from the ship’s crew. The expected denial from Pyongyang would trigger a notification to the Security Council, which in turn would urge the North Koreans to direct the ship to a convenient port for inspection. Most North Korean ships lack the ability to travel long distances, meaning they pull into harbors relatively frequently for fuel and supplies. “There are many countries in the region that we believe would be cooperative with us in trying to persuade the North Koreans to allow us to inspect their cargo once they were to take a port call for refueling,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Tuesday. He added that the U.S. and its allies have sufficient naval power in the region to monitor North Korean shipping without dispatching additional vessels.

Although such actions, even if successful, would play no direct part in ridding North Korea of its nuclear arsenal, it could play an indirect role. The weapons trade “has been a main source of revenue, for the north, for quite some time,” Morrell said. Choking it off, he said, would reduce funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear program as well as halt the proliferation of arms to other countries and terrorists “where it could pose a threat to us and our allies.”

“It’s basically tough talk [but] moderate action,” says retired Navy rear admiral Stephen Pietropaoli, who now runs the non-profit Navy League. “The alternative — forced boarding — would almost certainly lead to confrontation; possible loss of life; possible retaliation; and a high degree of likelihood that the North Koreans could sucker us into a confrontation over a load of Kewpie dolls or something equally non-threatening.”

But Pentagon officials also acknowledge their track record on monitoring North Korea shipping leaves something to be desired. Pyongyang played a major role in the development of a nuclear reactor that Syria was building until the Israeli air force bombed it into rubble in 2007. U.S. intelligence never has been able to identify what North Korean ships, if any, were involved in its construction. Which raises a troubling notion: North Korea’s nuclear know-how may be able to elude even the tightest naval noose.