Contrary to published reports, the North Korea-Yemen Scud missile transaction has stirred up “a hornet’s nest of issues,” in the words of a senior administration official. The State Department’s bungling of the now-infamous boarding of the pirate ship last week has angered Spanish officials (whose special forces unit made the stop), given North Korea a free pass (for now), and allowed Yemen to avoid the normal procedures required for such weapons purchases.
Shortly after word of the successful boarding of the pirate ship (a vessel that flies under various flags or none at all) bound for Yemen reached U.S. officials Sunday night, the working assumption was that the contraband on board would not reach its intended target. The ship, after all, had been tracked for quite some time, and when Spanish special forces attempted to board, the ship engaged in dangerous evasive maneuvers that could have downed a Spanish helicopter. When pressed, Yemeni officials denied ownership of the missiles on board. All signs pointed to a clandestine—and forbidden—weapons sale by North Korea.
But when the final decision was made Wednesday morning, the ship was allowed to proceed to Yemen. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who made the final call, was shielded from substantial evidence pointing to the illicit nature of the transaction, according to a senior administration official. Information upon which Powell based his decision also incorrectly stated that the ship’s contraband could not be seized under international law. But Powell may have come to regret the speed with which he moved to allow the ship to proceed. By the end of the week, according to a different senior administration official, Powell “had begun to regret how the situation was handled.”
Perhaps the worst result of the hasty resolution was that Yemen was able to skirt the normal protocols a nation must follow in purchasing arms, such as Scud missiles. Yemen didn’t prove, for example, the final destination for the missiles. It also didn’t have to provide evidence to support its claim that the sale had been the last installment in an old contract. In fact, the administration had strong evidence to dispute the Yemeni contention. According to a senior administration official, Yemen had negotiated the missile purchase from North Korea within the last six months.
Although the media flare-up last week died down within days, the incident could have a long-term impact. Relations with Spain should be smoothed over before too long, and Yemen will likely remain a fair-weather friend. But North Korea likely won’t be so lucky. This is the second major blow-up involving Pyongyang in the past few months, and last week’s shows that North Korea is clearly in the proliferation business. This is particularly ominous news considering that it is the only rogue state that the United States knows to have nuclear capability.
Despite its defiance in openly breaking a 1994 accord with the United States to freeze its nuclear program, North Korea has not materially suffered for its renewed pursuit of nuclear weapons. It’s not that the President chose that course of action, though. When briefed this summer about the secret resumption of North Korea’s nuclear program, a senior administration official says that the President was not eager to confront Pyongyang, but nonetheless told aides that he couldn’t “ignore” the misdeeds.
The White House was presented with essentially two different recommendations—which were made based on a 1-through-4 sliding scale—on how to proceed with North Korean relations. To give the necessary background: “1” is the toughest response, and though it differs based on the situation, it means something on the order of preparing for war. “2” typically represents tough action—more than talk, less than conflict—that at the least lays down markers. “3” is more or less a carrot-and-stick approach, and “4” can be generously be described as pressure through diplomacy.
The White House sided with the more hard-line option—a “2”—but the State Department had other ideas. Without authority to do so, officials at State watered down the policy decision when implementing it into practice, pursuing a combination of options “3” and “4”. And because of preoccupations with handling crises in the Middle East, brass at the Pentagon weren’t actively standing up to State’s covert coddling of North Korea. But the incident last week should serve as a “wake-up call about Pyongyang,” predicts a senior administration official.
With hard proof that North Korea is shipping weapons to the Middle East, the President’s “axis of evil” speech is proving remarkably prescient. If nothing else, the most enduring result of the whole affair will be shattering the myth that North Korea is “isolated” from other bad characters.