2003 August 21 Thursday
Assorted Naval Exercises, WMD Proliferation, And North Korea

The New York Times reports that as part of the Proliferation Security Initiative (see here and here for background on the Proliferation Security Initiative) US, Australian, and other allied navies will be carrying out interdiction exercises in the Coral Sea near Australia to train for intercepting North Korean shipping. (or see here)

Administration officials and Asian diplomats said that the exercise would be carried out in the Coral Sea off northeastern Australia in September and that it was officially described as directed at no one country. A principal intention, however, was to send a sharp signal to North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, they said.

There is still no diplomatic agreement on the conditions under which it will be acceptable to intercept North Korean shipping. But the Times gives the impression that diplomatic efforts are under way to come up with an agreement between a number of countries on rules for doing so.

The Times also reports on the DPRK Illicit Activities Initiative:

Under a separate program, known as the D.P.R.K. Illicit Activities Initiative, referring to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name, there has been a quiet crackdown by many nations against the North's narcotics trade, counterfeiting, money laundering and other efforts to earn hard currency.

It would be very interesting to know just how successful this crackdown has been.

In spite of the supposed split between the United States and Europe note that aside from the US, Japan, and Australia, all the rest of the Proliferation Security Initiative nations are European.

Air and ground interdiction exercises are planned as well, involving the 11 countries that have signed on to the plan, called the Proliferation Security Initiative. They are Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United States.

China is sending mixed but slightly encouraging signals about how it will respond to the Proliferation Security Initiative.

China has given its first assurance it will not allow North Korea to evade any international sanctions on exports of weapons of mass destruction by using Chinese territory for transit.

But it also warned yesterday that a naval screen being assembled by Australia and 10 other nations against such exports could have consequences for regional stability and interfere with ongoing diplomatic efforts.

The US Navy is also planning a submarine hunting exercise off the coast of Japan.

The Navy plans to begin testing a new method for hunting hostile submarines this fall off the coast of Japan, and the test will include looking for the real thing: diesel-electric North Korean and Chinese subs prowling in the Sea of Japan.

The US Navy will be testing the Littoral Airborne Sensor Hyperspectral (LASH) system for identifying underwater objects by small changes in color visible from the surface during the day.

A third naval exercise which has already started involves ships of Russia, Japan and South Korea in exercises near North Korea.

Russia, traditionally an ally of North Korea, embarked Monday on a 10-day maritime exercise, partly in waters near North Korea, that will involve two traditional enemies of the North, Japan and South Korea. The exercise is the first time that warships from those three countries have conducted joint maneuvers.

That is an interesting grouping. The presence of South Korea in the group is especially interesting. Why are the South Koreans doing this? To engage in security exercises separate from the United States? To send North Korea a message to back down?

The most curious and telling move by the Russians, though, is a land exercise near the North Korean border to train for handling a large refugee influx should the North Korean regime begin to teeter on the brink of collapse.

...border troops and civil defense officials are to conduct drills based on the premise that huge North Korean refugee flows could start as a result of a new war on the Korean peninsula or by the collapse of the government of Kim Jong Il.

Are the Russians doing that to send a message to the North Koreans? Or are they doing it because they think there is a substantial chance that such preparations may be useful in the foreseeable future?

Russia is also engaging in naval exercises with the US.

Russia said its naval vessels would link up with U.S. coastal forces in exercises in the Bering Straits...

North Korea is of course denouncing these exercises.

Slate's Fred Kaplan, seemingly forever excited by signs of various imagined imminent breakthroughs in negotiations with North Korea, is excited about Russia seeming to turn its back on North Korea. I think the importance of Russia in all this is exaggerated. South Korea and China are the countries that are doing the most to provide the Pyongyang regime with economic aid, trade, and diplomatic support to protect it against the United States. The facts on the ground for North Korea can substantially change only if either South Korea or China reduce aid and trade with North Korea or if the US and its allies start running real naval operations (not just practice exercises) to intercept North Korean shipments.

Naval interdiction against North Korea could potentially be very important if (really big if) it actually is put into practice. Illustrating this, the Washington Post has an excellent article about how the 1999 discovery by customs agents in Kandla India of missile parts and production equipment in a North Korean ship headed most likely to Libya demonstrates the kind of weapons and weapons technology trade engaged in by North Korea.

When the ship's doors were finally reopened at gunpoint, the reason for the extreme secrecy became clear. Hidden inside wooden crates marked "water refinement equipment" was an assembly line for ballistic missiles: tips of nose cones, sheet metal for rocket frames, machine tools, guidance systems and, in smaller crates, ream upon ream of engineers' drawings labeled "Scud B" and "Scud C." The intended recipient of the cargo, according to U.S. intelligence officials, was Libya.

While the previous article provides an insight into North Korean weapons sales a second excellent Washington Post article outlines the many efforts that North Korea has been making to purchase and import components needed for nuclear weapons development.

On April 12, in a dramatic but little-noticed intervention, French and German authorities tracked the ship to the eastern Mediterranean and seized the pipes. German police arrested the owner of a small export company and uncovered a broader scheme to acquire as many as 2,000 such pipes. That much aluminum in North Korean hands, investigators concluded, could have yielded as many as 3,500 gas centrifuges for enriching uranium.

"The intentions were clearly nuclear," said a Western diplomat familiar with the investigation. "The result could have been several bombs' worth of weapons-grade uranium in a year."

As the second Washington Post article linked to above demonstrates, North Korea's ability to send diplomats to other countries and to trade with many countries provides it with opportunities to earn hard currency and to skirt around export restrictions to buy the equipment it needs for its nuclear weapons development program. If governments that currently allow North Korean visitors and that allow North Korean diplomatic missions and business fronts to operate on their territories were to restrict the number of North Koreans they allow on their soil that would reduce the effectiveness of North Korean smuggling operations. If countries were to break off diplomatic relations with North Korea that would even further reduce the regime's ability to acquire desired equipment. As it stands now the North Koreans have so many agents working abroad that it is just a matter of time before they succeed in acquiring anything that they attempt to purchase.

When commentators speak of increasing the pressure on North Korea one has to ask in each case what exactly that means. The North Korean leaders don't mind being pariahs. They don't mind having few friends. What matters to them is what they need, what they want, and what they can get away with. They may change their position if they sense that trends are moving in a direction not favorable to them. But unless trends are moving in a direction that threatens the survival of the regime or which will totally frustrate their ambitions they are not going to cave in and give up nuclear weapons development. So the various initiatives and exercises either on-going or planned only matter to the extent that they lead to events that substantially reduce the Pyongyang regime's ability to do things that it would otherwise be able to do.

The big problem that the United States continues to face in dealing with North Korea is that China and South Korea are still aid-and-trade partners for North Korea and there is still no official sanctions regime in place that would provide the US with the diplomatic legitimacy it needs to entirely stop North Korean trade by sea.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 August 21 01:19 AM  Korea

Steve Donnelly said at August 22, 2003 12:08 PM:

I read some journalists and diplomats opine that the use of the new sub finder technology during naval exercises would be considered an act of war by NK. How exactly would they know that we had used a passive technology to detect one of their diesel subs. Being immersed in the water, a submarine should not be aware of a P-3 flying overhead.

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