WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration in recent days has examined the military option of boarding two North Korean cargo ships heading for Iran loaded with Scud-C ballistic missiles for the arsenals of Syria and Iran, administration officials said yesterday.
The option, which has been discussed in the Pentagon, State Department and White House, is under active consideration by President Bush and his senior national security aides, but no decisions have been made, the officials said.
The military planning follows State Department criticism of North Korea last month for shipping these missiles, which are still on the high seas aboard two ships.
Such a boarding would be conducted by U.S. naval warships operating as part of the multinational force enforcing the U.N. trade embargo against Iraq, officials said.
These forces operate under U.N. authority to query and search vessels suspected of carrying illicit cargo to Iraq under rules of engagement that allow warship commanders to forcibly detain, search and divert illegal cargoes from reaching Iraq.
U.S. officials said they had no authority to seize military cargoes bound for Iran or Syria, but a naval challenge and inspection could be viewed as part of the general interdiction program in the area. The administration's intent would be to snare the North Korean vessels in the anti-Iraq enforcement program, and once their destination was properly documented by a boarding party, they would be allowed to proceed.
Some administration officials believe that such a step would be a further warning to North Korea. The disingenuous use of U.N. authority is causing some administration officials to look skeptically at the legality of the option, and at least one official who discussed the classified contingency planning did so because he considered such a step ill-advised.
One official said he believed that one reason the administration was willing to consider the boarding option was that Israeli officials are pressing Washington to take decisive action to staunch the flow of advanced weapons to Syria.
The Scud-C is an improved version of the Soviet-made Scud-B missile. Iraq also fired Scud-B missiles at Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf war last year. The Scud-C has range of about 310 miles. An improved guidance system gives it the ability to deliver a conventional, high-explosive warhead more accurately.
North Korea's sale of ballistic missiles in the Middle East does not violate international law or any commitment made by the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung. Thus there is no legal justification for stopping this shipment of missiles.