Friday, June 19, 2009
The U.S. military is planning to intercept a flagged North Korean ship suspected of proliferating weapons material in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution passed last Friday. The USS John McCain, a navy destroyer, will intercept the ship Kang Nam as soon as it leaves the vicinity off the coast of China, according to a senior U.S. defense official. The order to inderdict has not been given yet, but the ship is getting into position. The ship left a port in North Korea Wednesday and appears to be heading toward Singapore, according to a senior U.S. military source. The vessel, which the military has been tracking since its departure, could be carrying weaponry, missile parts or nuclear materials, a violation of U.N. Resolution 1874, which put sanctions in place against Pyongyang. The USS McCain was involved in an incident with a Chinese sub last Friday - near Subic Bay off the Philippines. The Chinese sub was shadowing the destroyer when it hit the underwater sonar array that the USS McCain was towing behind it. That same navy destroyer that was being shadowed by the Chinese is now positioning itself for a possible interdiction of the North Korean vessel. This is the first suspected "proliferator" that the U.S. and its allies have tracked from North Korea since the United Nations authorized the world's navies to enforce compliance with a variety of U.N. sanctions aimed at punishing North Korea for its recent nuclear test. The ship is currently along the coast of China and being monitored around-the-clock by air.
USS John S. McCain (DDG-56)The apparent violation raises the question of how the United States and its allies will respond, particularly since the U.N. resolution does not have a lot of teeth to it. The resolution would not allow the United States to board the ship forcibly. Rather, U.S. military would have to request permission to board -- a request North Korea is unlikely to grant. North Korea has said that any attempt to board its ships would be viewed as an act of war and promised "100- or 1,000-fold" retaliation if provoked. The U.S. military may also request that the host country not provide fuel to the ship when it enters its port. The Kang Nam is known to be a ship that has been involved in proliferation activities in the past -- it is "a repeat offender," according to one military source. The ship was detained in October 2006 by authorities in Hong Kong after the North Koreans tested their first nuclear device and the U.N. imposed a subsequent round of sanctions. The latest tension follows a Japanese news report that North Korea may fire a long-range ballistic missile toward Hawaii in early July. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday the military is "watching" that situation "very closely," and would have "some concerns" if North Korea launched a missile in the direction of Hawaii. But he expressed confidence in U.S. ability to handle such a launch. Gates said he's directed the deployment of the Theater High Altitude Area Defense, a mobile missile defense system used for knocking down long- and medium-range missiles. "The ground-based interceptors are clearly in a position to take action. So, without telegraphing what we will do, I would just say ... I think we are in a good position, should it become necessary, to protect the American territory."