New York Times
November 14, 2006
By Norimitsu Onishi
SEOUL, South Korea, Nov. 13 — South Korea said Monday that it would not join a United States-led effort to intercept North Korean ships suspected of carrying unconventional weapons or related cargo, raising fresh doubts about Washington’s drive to punish the North for its nuclear test last month.
The South Korean government of President Roh Moo-hyun has come under increasing pressure from the political opposition and its American ally to join the campaign since the test.
The effort to punish North Korea has become a part of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a three-year-old, American-led program to coordinate and develop procedures for intercepting smugglers of unconventional weapons around the world.
But even as Washington sought to build unity ahead of a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Hanoi this week, and the possible resumption of six-nation talks over the North’s nuclear program early next month, Seoul made it clear that it was hewing to its policy of avoiding confrontation with the North.
South Korea has supported, but not joined, the security program, fearing that inspecting North Korean ships by force could lead to a military confrontation.
“The government has declared that it has a special status of officially supporting the goals and principles of the Proliferation Security Initiative, while not formally joining it in consideration of special circumstances on the Korean Peninsula,” Park In-kook, the deputy foreign minister, said at a news conference.
A loose coalition of countries that have joined, including Australia and Japan, have carried out naval exercises to practice for interdictions, and a few countries have already boarded ships to and from North Korea in ports throughout Asia.
But the legality of intercepting ships in international waters remains unclear, even under a United Nations Security Council resolution passed after the North’s test. The resolution calls on countries, though it does not require them, to inspect cargo in and out of North Korea.
On Monday, South Korean officials did not announce any new measures to comply with the resolution, repeating modest steps they had already announced in recent weeks. They said South Korea would ban the visit of any North Korean official related to the development of unconventional weapons, and would suspend subsidies for some South Koreans to visit the Mount Kumgang resort in the North.
The South announced soon after the nuclear test that it would not suspend its two major economic projects with the North, the resort and an industrial park in Kaesong. American officials have also pressed Seoul to suspend those projects.
Except for North Korea, the nations participating in the six-nation talks — South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia — are expected to meet in Hanoi, Vietnam, this week to plan for the resumption of talks next month.
North Korea withdrew from the talks a year ago after the United States imposed a crackdown on banks dealing with the North and on North Korean businesses, but agreed last month to return to the talks after American officials indicated that they would discuss the restrictions.
In Tokyo, the Russian ambassador to Japan, Aleksandr P. Losyukov, said Monday at a news conference that the talks would probably take place in early December. But Mr. Losyukov, who had been Russia’s lead negotiator in the earlier talks, played down expectations.
“Even if the talks are held,” he said, “I don’t think there will be a complete solution to the problem.”