The Bush administration said Monday that naval training exercises led by the United States and Australia next month on interdicting weapons at sea are not directed against North Korea. However, U.S. officials say North Korea could be affected by the program if it continues to proliferate missiles and other advanced systems.
The September exercises in the Coral Sea off the Australian coast are to be the first held under the Proliferation Security Initiative announced by President Bush and other leaders in Poland last May.
Eleven countries are parties to the initiative, which is aimed at developing a more robust response to international traffic in weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems including missiles, and the risk these might fall into the hands of terrorists.
U.S. officials have said the Coral Sea exercises will include practicing so-called "non-permissive boarding" of vessels suspected of carrying drugs, missile components, nuclear materials and other contraband.
North Korea and Iran have been cited by initiative member states as countries of particular proliferation concern, and the New York Times said Monday a "principle intention" of the upcoming exercises is to send a "sharp signal" North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated previous U.S. statements that the program is directed at no one particular country. Yet he said North Korea might find itself affected if it continued what he said was aggressive proliferation activity:
"Interdiction training exercises and the Proliferation Security Initiative overall are not focussed on North Korea," he said. "It's a global initiative with global reach. It's aimed at stopping the flow of weapons of mass destruction, missiles and related materials to and from state and non-state actors of proliferation concern. However if North Korea wants to continue to aggressively proliferate missiles and related technologies, it might itself affected by this."
Mr. Boucher said U-S Navy and Coast Guard forces will join similar Australian units in the Coral Sea exercises.
While those two countries will be the main participants, he said the other parties to the Proliferation Security Initiative will take part in "some capacity." They include Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain.
Plans for the exercises were made last month at a meeting in Brisbane, Australia. A joint statement from that meeting said "increasingly aggressive and sophisticated" efforts to circumvent existing non-proliferation agreements require new and strong enforcement action by law-abiding nations.
There has been a low-key crackdown by a number of countries on Pyongyang's trafficking activities since last year.
This includes the boarding of a North Korean vessel by Australian authorities in April on suspicion of heroin smuggling, and the boarding of another by Taiwanese customs authorities earlier this month and the seizure of more that 150 barrels of phosphorous pentasuflide, a potential ingredient for chemical weapons.
Last December, Spanish warships stopped a North Korean vessel carrying concealed Scud missiles to Yemen. The delivery was later allowed to proceed after Yemeni protests, underling the legal complications of interdiction activity in international waters.