The United States yesterday allowed a seized North Korean missile shipment bought by the Yemeni government to reach its destination, after Yemen promised the delivery would go no farther and it would not purchase arms from Pyongyang again.
The Scud missile transfer, which Yemen said was the last in a series contracted several years ago, violates no international laws or regulations, senior U.S. officials said. But they said something must be done to prevent weapons proliferation by North Korea.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, after a flurry of phone calls between top Bush administration officials and the Yemeni government, informed President Ali Abdullah Saleh around noon yesterday that the cargo ship would be released.
“We recognized that it was going to a country that we have good relations with,” Mr. Powell said shortly after his conversation with Mr. Saleh. “We had assurance that these missiles were for Yemeni defensive purposes and under no circumstances would they be going anywhere else.”
Mr. Saleh also guaranteed “this was the last of a group of shipments that go back some years and this would be the end of it,” Mr. Powell said in a speech after receiving an award from the American Academy of Diplomacy.
Before that final phone call with the Yemeni president, Mr. Powell spoke twice with Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu-bakr al-Qerbi. Then Vice President Richard B. Cheney had a conversation with Mr. Saleh, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.
The unflagged ship, which was stopped and searched by two Spanish warships in the Arabian Sea on Monday, was carrying 15 Scud missiles, 15 conventional warheads and 85 drums of unidentified chemicals, U.S. officials said.
“We have looked at this matter thoroughly,” said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. “There is no provision under international law prohibiting Yemen from accepting delivery of missiles from North Korea.”
Although there was no legal basis for preventing the ship from reaching the Yemeni shore, officials said some in the Bush administration were against releasing the vessel, arguing that Yemen had broken a promise to the United States.
Mr. Boucher acknowledged the Yemeni government had pledged to end its purchases of missile technology from North Korea twice first in July 2001 and then again last August. But that promise applied only to new contracts and not those already signed, he said.
Yemen, an Arab state, in the past gave refuge to al Qaeda members and other terrorists. The USS Cole was at port in the Yemeni city of Aden when an al Qaeda bomb attack in 2000 killed 17 U.S. sailors. But since the September 11 attacks, it has become a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.
Although it is free to import arms, Washington is concerned that such missile technology could be used by Iraq, which is under U.N. embargo, and other states sponsoring terrorism.
The Scud shipment, which was first disclosed by The Washington Times 10 days ago, had been detected by U.S. intelligence upon leaving the North Korean port of Nampo several weeks ago and was followed closely as the ship made its way to the Arabian Sea.
On Monday, the United States asked Spain to inspect the ship. Its vessels were “at the right place at the right time,” Mr. Boucher said with a smile.
“We were very suspicious about the ship,” he said. “At first one couldn’t verify the nationality of the ship, because the ship’s name and the indications of nationality on the hull and the funnel were obscured. It was flying no flag.
“So a ship like this, acting suspiciously in a sensitive part of the world, carrying what might be missiles from North Korea, is obviously going to get a lot of attention,” he said.
The crew, which said both its members and the vessel were Cambodian, refused to let the Spanish aboard. They fired warning shots and contacted the Cambodian authorities, who told them they had no ship with the name So San, which was painted on it, but nevertheless gave the Spanish permission to board.
Once Spanish and on Tuesday U.S. inspectors climbed aboard the ship, about 600 miles off the Yemeni shore, they found irregularities in the cargo and the documentation, and found the Scuds under bags of cement, Mr. Boucher said.
U.S. officials refused to speculate on why the missiles were hidden under cement bags.
Mr. Boucher said the United States contacted the Yemeni government, which said the missiles were destined for its army and demanded them back.
North Korea, which is part of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” admitted in October to having developed a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States. This latest shipment has heightened concerns about its missile exports.
“They continue to be the single largest proliferator of ballistic missile technology on the face of the earth, and they are putting into the hands of many countries the technologies and capabilities which have the potential for killing hundreds of thousands of people,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters during a visit to the Gulf nation of Qatar yesterday.