Spain Astonished by Release of North Korean Vessel Carrying Missiles
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
The drama surrounding the initial seizure and eventual release of the ship carrying Scud missiles, other components and chemical substances in the Indian Ocean on 10 December created an uproar not only throughout Asia but also in Europe. The reaction in Spain, whose navy and special forces risked their lives to capture the unidentified and potentially hostile ship, was particularly strong.
Originally the seizure was described as a "textbook operation" by Spanish authorities who praised the effectiveness with which their forces overcame "moments of great tension" and captured the ship carrying potential weapons of mass destruction ("Spanish Vessel Fires Against a Merchant Ship Carrying Scud Missiles Close to Yemen", El Pais, 11 December). According to Spanish sources, they were unaware where the ship was headed and suspected that its cargo was meant to supply individuals/organizations tied to the al-Qaida network. On the following day El Pais even ran an article headlining, "North Korea Deals in Arms Sales with al-Qaida" (El Pais, 11 December). This was a daunting prospect considering that the ship carried 15 scud missiles, a large number of components, 23 barrels of nitric acid and another 84 drums of unidentified chemical substances. The bravery and success exhibited by Spanish forces was praised as spectacular and served to reinforce the feeling that their presence in the so called 'arc of instability' in the Indian Ocean was preventing terrorism and promoting global security.
Then, the nation was shocked as U.S. authorities decided to release the vessel after "high-level diplomacy" with the Yemeni government that admitted to having purchased the missiles from North Korea. On 12 December, the White House spokesman Ari Fleisher defended this decision stating that, "we have no choice but to obey international law. What Yemen has done does not provide a threat to the U.S." (Matt Kelley, "Seizure, release of missile shipment complicates relations with North Korea", AP, 12 December).
The Spanish reaction was one of astonishment with the Minister of Defense Frederico Trillo-Figueroa describing the outcome as "unforeseen and disconcerting" ("Astonishment in the Spanish Ministry of Defense", El Pais, 12 December). An unnamed official was also quoted in the Spanish daily as stating that "the Spanish military forces risked their lives, and so far we don't know why" ("Astonishment in the Spanish Ministry of Defense", El Pais, 12 December).
The main lessons Spain drew from this fiasco were outlined in an El Pais editorial as: the realization that North Korea is the most dangerous and uncontrollable regime in the world; that there are serious limitations to the ability of the international community to monitor and limit the sale of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction; and that U.S. influence over its "new allies" (Yemen, Pakistan etc.) in the so-called war on terrorism is by no means persuasive ("Boarding in the Indian Ocean", El Pais, 12 December).
In other parts of Europe journalists such as Rupert Cornwell called the event an "explosive farce" (The Independent, 12 December). The same day's editorial remarked that the "seizure illustrates the difficulty of dealing with both states which supply [ballistic missiles capable of carrying biological, chemical or nuclear payloads] and those which acquire them" (The Independent). The editorial asked questions such as, "if it was a legal purchase why were the missiles being transported as hidden cargo, aboard a stateless ship whose markings had been altered?" and "why does impoverished Yemen need offensive scud missiles?"
As a result of this incident, we have been reminded of the fact that North Korea is the world's most "reckless agent of weapons proliferation" (Editorial, The Independent, 12 December). This combined with the North Korea's recent declaration to resume nuclear facilities has led Europeans to question the double standards evident in Bush's policy towards Iraq and that of North Korea. Furthermore, Europeans are coming to understand Japan's sincere concern with their threatening neighbor. Finally, most find it puzzling why all international efforts are focused on starving the North Korean regime into submission by cutting off food and oil aid when North Korea is permitted to sell missiles and other seriously threatening weapons technology with all impunity. El Pais reports that each Scud missile goes for approximately $4 million US on the black market and the Associated Press claims that North Korea sells approximately $100 million annually in arms ("Interception of ship highlights concerns over North Korea's missile proliferation", 11 December). This money goes to feed and maintain the cruel dictatorship while international sanctions starve the population.
The protest launched by the Japanese government against Yemen this week to prevent it from buying missiles from North Korea are no doubt important. According to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan provided Yemen with 64,376 million yen in loans, 45,837 million yen in grants and 6,408 million yen in technical cooperation this year. If Yemen can afford to buy 15 Scud missiles at $4 million dollars a piece from the world's most reckless proliferator why should Japan continue to give Yemen money?
In addition, this incident has highlighted the need for greater control over the arms trade in general. That the U.S. is not interested the idea is obvious not only because it let North Korea and Yemen off the hook but also due to the fact that the U.S. is the world's number one proliferator with sales of up to $14 billion annually (Calvin Woodward, "Weapons trade open to all who can pay", Associated Press, 11 December). Nevertheless, with each sale the world becomes more dangerous and less secure regardless of whether the transaction is legal or not. If the sale of 15 Scud missiles capable of being mounted with chemical, biological and/or nuclear warheads accompanied by toxic chemical substances from a reckless regime (N. Korea) to an impoverished and unstable government (Yemen) is legal, perhaps the definition of what is legal needs to be changed and stricter controls need to be implemented regardless of how much they may affect profits in the global arms industry.
- "Buques espanoles disparan cerca de Yemen contra un mercante cargado con misiles Scud", El Pais, 11 December 2002
- "EE UU deveulve a Yemen el barco con misiles interceptado por Espana", 12 December 2002
- Enric Gonzalez, "Corea del Norte trata de vender misiles a al-Qaeda", El Pais, 11 December 2002