Wednesday, January 28, 2004

North Korea has offered to sell Nigeria advanced missile technology, the Nigerian government said yesterday, prompting the United States to warn its African ally that it might face sanctions if it strikes a deal with Pyongyang.

Nigerian officials yesterday issued vague and contradictory statements about their intentions and the missile type on offer, although they acknowledged seeking ballistic-missile technology for “peaceful” purposes.

A sale would mark the first time that such technology has been introduced into sub-Saharan Africa, raising the prospect of a costly new arms race among some of the world’s poorest and least-stable nations.

A North Korean delegation “came to us wanting a memorandum of understanding signed with us toward developing missile technology, and training and manufacture of ammunition,” a spokesman for Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar was quoted as saying.

The delegation, led by Yang Hyong-sop, vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, discussed the proposal with Mr. Abubakar during a five-day visit to Abuja, the Nigerian capital.

The spokesman, Onukaba Ojo, was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying that a memorandum would be signed soon.

The state-run News Agency of Nigeria also said that Mr. Abubakar had “expressed an interest in signing a defense pact with North Korea on the grounds that the Asian country was developed in that area.”

That statement did not specify whether the missile sale would be part of the agreement. However, Agence France-Presse quoted Mr. Ojo as saying: “There hasn’t been any interest shown on our side.”

The United States, which is trying to undercut the North’s ability to sell missile and nuclear technology around the world, said that rejecting Pyongyang’s pitch would be “the right step” for Nigeria.

“We’d welcome a decision to turn down any such offers from North Korea,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters. “We want to stop North Korea’s missile activities, and we’ve gone to many countries to try to encourage them not to buy.”

Another State Department official said that a deal could result in sanctions against both seller and buyer.

“The United States is committed to using all available measures, including interdictions and sanctions, when warranted, against North Korea’s missile activities and those of its missile customers,” the official said.

“The United States will continue to closely monitor missile-related trade involving North Korea and work with other like-minded countries taking steps to address such activities.”

The Bush administration, along with 11 allied governments, began an effort last year to intercept illegal arms shipments on the high seas from rogue states, such as North Korea and Iran.

The plan, known as the Proliferation Security Initiative, is aimed at preventing lethal weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists and dictators.

Washington has named North Korea as the world’s largest exporter of ballistic missiles. It maintains that the profits from those sales go for developing nuclear-weapons programs.

The two countries are locked in a bitter standoff, which the Bush administration is trying to resolve in six-party talks along with China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

The North is reported to have shared its technology with Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Pakistan and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

Mr. Ojo insisted yesterday that Nigeria’s interest in acquiring missiles does not mean it is pursuing weapons of mass destruction.

“I’m sure that Nigeria is not dreaming of nuclear weapons at all, just missile technology,” he was quoted as saying. “If you are acquiring technology for peaceful purpose, I don’t think that should make our allies uneasy.”

Nigeria, the most populous African nation with 126 million people, is the fifth-largest oil supplier to the United States. It receives substantial military and law-enforcement assistance from Washington.

It also has the strongest military in the region and often plays a leading role in peacekeeping missions, such as the one currently in Liberia.

Despite U.S. concerns about corruption and crime, the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo has good relations with the United States, although it is seeking new allies in Asia and other parts of the world.

During a visit to Nigeria last year, President Bush praised Mr. Obasanjo for his leadership on the African continent.

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