Navy to intercept but not board N. Korean ships

'Vigorous' effort to track banned nuclear cargo

By David E. Sanger
The New York Times / June 16, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The Obama administration will order the Navy to hail and request permission to inspect North Korean ships at sea suspected of carrying arms or nuclear technology, but would not forcibly seek to board them, senior administration officials said yesterday.

The new effort to intercept North Korean ships, and track them to their next port where Washington will press for the inspections they refused at sea, is part of what the officials described as "vigorous enforcement" of the UN Security Council resolution approved Friday.

The planned US action stops short of the forced inspection that North Korea has said that it would regard as an act of war.

Still, the administration's plans, if fully executed, would amount to the most confrontational approach taken by the United States in dealing with North Korea in years, and carries a risk of escalating tensions at a time when North Korea has been carrying out missile and nuclear tests.

In discussing President Obama's strategy yesterday, administration officials said the US would report any ship that refused inspection to the Security Council and, while the Navy continues to track the ship, the administration would mount a vigorous diplomatic effort to insist that the inspections be carried out by any country that allowed the vessel into port.

A senior administration official said yesterday that the United States believes that it already has sufficient intelligence and naval assets in the Sea of Japan to track North Korean ships and flights.

The country's cargo fleet is relatively small, and the North is wary, officials say, of entrusting shipments banned by the United Nations to Panamanian-flagged freighters or those from other countries.

The new Security Council resolution authorizes nations to seek to stop suspect North Korean shipments on the high seas, but they do not authorize forcible boarding or inspections.

"The captains will be confronted," one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing a security operation that America's key allies have only been partially briefed on.

Even if they refused to allow inspections, the official said, "These guys aren't going to get very far."

While the captain of a ship may refuse inspection, as the North Koreans almost certainly would, the Obama administration officials noted that most North Korean vessels have limited range and would have to seek out ports in search of fuel and supplies.