The United States has allowed a ship stopped at sea by U.S. and Spanish warships to proceed to Yemen loaded with scud missiles from North Korea. While Yemen says the missiles are for its own legitimate use, the issue is raising new concerns about the North Korea's proliferation of missile technology.
The United States determined that no matter how much it wants to stop North Korea's weapons exports, this shipment of scud missiles to Yemen was absolutely legal and it had no right to intercept its cargo.
"There is no provision of international law that prohibited this," said White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer.
In fact, the Yemeni government calls the shipment part of an agreement reached with Pyongyang some time ago to acquire missiles for its own national defense. But the fact that the scuds were purchased from North Korea is raising new concerns within the Bush administration.
"What it tells us is that the North Koreans are continuing to export missiles as they have all along and there is nothing actually illegal," said Peter Hayes, director of the California-based Nautilus Institute, which conducts research on North Korea. "This kind of clandestine transfer of arms is going on all the time."
North Korea is not a signatory to the international agreement that would prohibit the export of missile technology to other countries. Just Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld labeled the North the world's largest missile proliferator.
"They will continue to play this kind of rogue state role and there is no way other than engaging them to actually bring that to an end," Mr. Hayes said.
Complicating matters in this case is the fact that the United States accuses Yemen of playing host to several terrorist groups including al-Qaida. Perhaps because these missile shipments were in fact legal, White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer expects to see the world take a fresh look at how countries deal with dangerous weapons exporters.
"If there is one thing that is going to come out of this, is that the world community has learned that the efforts of counter proliferation that exist on the international arena dealing with missiles needs to be re-examined," he said.
What could be an indication of an even more aggressive North Korean posture toward weapons exports comes just two months after U.S. officials say Pyongyang admitted breaking its longstanding pledge not to pursue development of nuclear weapons.
In response, Washington stopped financing badly needed imports of fuel oil just as the North Korean winter was arriving. But this latest incident could illustrate just how little leverage other countries now have in countering the North's exports of dangerous weapons to rogue states.