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Plan to cut off N. Korea takes shape

A White House initiative to halt North Korean ships and planes in the effort to prevent weapons exports is one of the most controversial items on the agenda Thursday as three key players in the Korean Peninsula nuclear drama meet in Honolulu.
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A White House initiative to halt North Korean ships and planes in the effort to prevent weapons exports and cut the main lifelines of the communist regime is one of the most controversial items on the agenda Thursday as three key players in the Korean Peninsula nuclear drama meet in Honolulu.

This week's meetings among officials from Washington, Seoul and Tokyo come on the heels of the most explicit comments so far that Pyongyang plans to pursue a nuclear weapons program.

On Monday, the official Korea Central News Agency published a statement saying that it would seek “nuclear deterrence” to what it sees as a hostile policy and continued nuclear threat from the United States. This deterrence, it said, “is not to blackmail (anybody) but to reduce conventional weapons and to spend human resources and money in economy construction and the people’s lives.”

The policy would change only if the United States changed its stance, according to the news agency, which acts as a mouthpiece for the Pyongyang government.

But that’s not likely. In fact, participants at the meeting will discuss a new U.S. initiative to confront North Korea — an initiative that indicates the Bush administration is increasing, not lowering, its pressure on the Stalinist regime.

Unveiled May 31
The Proliferation Security Initiative, which was introduced publicly by President Bush on May 31 during a speech in Poland, is aimed at setting up internationally coordinated interceptions of weapons shipments. It was billed as a way to prevent terrorist groups from linking up with states that are developing nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

“The United States and a number of our close allies, including Poland, have begun working on new agreements to search planes and ships carrying suspect cargo and to seize illegal weapons or missile technologies,” President Bush said. “Over time, we will extend this partnership as broadly as possible to keep the world’s most destructive weapons away from our shores and out of the hands of our common enemies.”

Although the policy is ostensibly aimed at stopping proliferation problems worldwide, it was no surprise to experts when a South Korean news agency reported that it was on the agenda for this week’s Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group meetings, which take place on an as-needed basis to discuss the North Korea dilemma.

“I think the initiative has been built around the single case of North Korea,” says Robert Einhorn, senior adviser for the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They do have in mind that this kind of aggressive antiproliferation strategy will have broader applicability, but in the near term, they see it focused on North Korea.”

Hard currency earned through exports that include missile technology and illegal drugs is seen as essential for the country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Cobbling together a coalition
Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who reportedly was briefed on the plan and agreed to support it at a summit with President Bush in May, is already taking action. On Tuesday, Japan’s transport ministry announced it would begin tough, new inspections of North Korean cargo ships and ferries, and barred two ships from leaving port earlier in this week, citing safety violations.

The detained ships — carrying shrimp, pipes, and men’s suits — were later released, but not before eliciting a howl of protest from Pyongyang against what it saw as U.S.-inspired “sanctions.” In protest, it halted travel of a ferry that moves between the two countries.

Each year, 147 North Korean ships make a total of 1,344 port calls in Japan, which is separated from North Korea by a narrow strip of sea.

Although Australia, Poland and Spain — all allies of the United States in its war on terror — have lent their support to the new policy, some key players are expected to resist strongly.

After the contentious ship inspections, China’s foreign ministry urged Japan to stay clear of actions that could escalate the crisis. The long-time communist ally of North Korea is concerned about its neighbor’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, but has to weigh that concern against the impact of a war, or regime collapse in North Korea, which could send thousands of refugees across the countries’ shared border.

A push for negotiation
South Korea also continues to urge negotiation between the United States and North Korea, and because of that is expected to oppose the Bush administration’s new initiative.

Newly elected South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has been vacillating on policy toward the North. While in the United States last month, he seemed to narrow the gap with the Bush administration, warning of tougher measures if North Korea doesn’t drop its nuclear weapons program. But upon return, he backpedaled when he came under pressure from his constituents, who favor a continuation of the “sunshine policy” started by his predecessor Kim Dae-jung — a policy that prompted unprecedented contact between the rival Korean governments. Ironically, railroad connections between North and South Korea that were started under Kim are slated to open up June 14.

“In general, I don’t think any strategy has hope of working without South Korean cooperation,” says Alexandre Mansourov, associate professor of Security Studies at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

Avoiding the U.N.
The legal and logistical outlines of the U.S. plan remain hazy, but the scope of search and interception aims at sources of income for the Pyongyang regime, and is not just limited to stopping the shipment of weapons of mass destruction.

Testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee, Undersecretary for Arms Control John Bolton said North Korea’s missile exports, along with illegal drug exports and gambling business in Japan, all help fund its development of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. He said the United States was concentrated on stopping that flow of funds.

The illegal activities have “funded the greed of the North Korean leadership” and interrupting them will have no effect on the 22 million North Korean people, said Bolton. Bolton, an appointed member of the State Department, tends towards the more hawkish views of the Bush administration rather than the more conciliatory approach of the department as a whole.

But there are legal and diplomatic pitfalls, as seen last year when Spain, at the behest of Washington, intercepted a North Korean shipment of scud missiles on their way to Yemen. The shipment of scuds was not illegal; North Korea has not signed on to international agreements that ban such missiles. Yemen argued that the cargo was paid for and threatened to back off as a partner in the war on terrorism if it was not delivered. There was a risk that the United States would be charged with piracy. Ultimately, the shipment was allowed to reach its destination.

The details are under debate. Australia said Wednesday it was in talks with the United States and Japan about possible changes in international law to boost powers to block North Korean ships suspected of carrying drugs, counterfeit money or missiles.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said North Korean ships or aircraft could be stopped if they went through other nations’ territorial waters and airspace but new measures were needed to intercept vessels on the high seas.

“We’re not talking here at this stage of imposing a blockade on North Korea,” Downer told Australian radio. “We’re still working on whether there needs to be some change to international law to facilitate these types of interdictions, to stop illicit trade.”

He did not say exactly how the three countries would achieve a change in the international law that governs the use of the sea.

There had been speculation that the United States would seek a new U.N. resolution for action against North Korean vessels carrying certain proscribed items, but this initiative suggests that it will instead seek deals with as many individual countries as it can, avoiding protracted debate and possible defeat in the international body.

Looking for 'existing justification'
“It appears that the administration does not want to do that,” says Einhorn of CSIS. “Instead it wants to look around for existing justification,” for stopping the ships.

Just how far the United States and its partners are willing to go to cut off Pyongyang remains to be seen.

“If you know there is a North Korean plane carrying plutonium that will land in Afghan and give it to al-Qaida, then there’s no question,” says Robert Dujarric, a senior fellow at the non-profit Hudson Institute. “But real situations are usually in a gray zone.”

And it is unclear how far the interceptions would go, and at what point they cross a red line.

“Can you shoot down a (suspect) North Korean plane?” Dujarric says. “If you are a military planner, you have to assume it could end up in a full-scale war.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.