South Korea says it will soon announce its full participation in a U.S. - led group of nations cooperating to prevent the global traffic of weapons of mass destruction. The move may raise tension with the North, even as diplomacy to end North Korea's nuclear weapons unravels.
South Korea is expected to make public, possibly within days, its plans to take full part in the Proliferation Security Initiative, or PSI.
Then-President George W. Bush started the international cooperative soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001. It is aimed at coordinating voluntary steps by more than 90 member countries to track and stop vessels suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction. Those steps include fast-tracking permission requests to board and inspect suspicious ships bearing member country flags, even in international waters.
Moon Tae-young, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, says the PSI announcement will be made soon. However, he notes that because North Korea is not part of PSI, it will be impossible to stop North Korean ships in international waters.
Moving out of 'observer' status
Up until now, South Korea has only accepted "observer" status in the program, citing the sensitivity of the North-South relationship. The two Koreas remain technically at war. Only a temporary armistice halted three years of fighting in the early 1950s, after the North invaded the South.
North Korea has warned it will interpret South Korea's decision to join PSI as a declaration of war. South Korean officials describe that as an overreaction. They say the decision to join PSI reflects South Korean concerns about weapons proliferation worldwide, and is not targeted specifically at the North.
Nonetheless, recent North Korean actions may have helped expedite South Korea's decision to join PSI. Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket over northern Japan earlier this month. Some experts view that launch not just as a test of the North's ballistic missiles, but as a type of showcasing of North Korean weapons to potential buyers around the world.
North Korea's bold moves cause concern
In addition, North Korea has also expelled international nuclear inspectors, pulled out of six-nation talks on its nuclear weapons, and vowed to resume the production of weapons grade nuclear material. All of that has happened in the past few days, as part of an angry response to a condemnation of the rocket launch by the United Nations Security Council.
North Korea has also detained for nearly three weeks two South Koreans who worked at a joint North-South industrial park in the North Korean city of Kaesong. South Korean Unification Ministry Spokesman, Kim Ho-nyoun, urged North Korea Friday not to use the detainees as leverage on the PSI issue.
He says North Korea should not connect the two issues. He describes the detention as a humanitarian issue that should not be connected to the political issue of PSI.