IN the first week of August, the Indian Navy interdicted a North Korean cargo ship off the Andaman coast. The Indian Navy has claimed that the cargo ship, M V San had entered Indian territorial waters without the requisite permission. The Indian Navy’s interdiction of the North Korean ship has earned plaudits from Washington. The US Navy had not dared to interdict a North Korean ship M V Kang Nam 1 which the Americans suspected of carrying “banned cargo” for Myanmar. The US Navy had trailed the ship for three weeks in the middle of the year but did not dare to board the ship. North Korea had warned that such a move by the US would be tantamount to a declaration of war. The job of interdiction of North Korean ships seems to have been subcontracted by Washington to willing third countries.
The incident in the Andaman Sea was the first time a North Korean ship was seized and detained under the terms of the sanctions adopted by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874 in June this year. The resolution banned all arms exports from North Korea and authorised member countries to inspect suspicious ships for banned items. The new sanctions were adopted after the North conducted another round of nuclear tests in May this year.
Russia and China, along with many other countries in the region, have been quite lukewarm in their support of the US initiated sanctions against the North, particularly on the question of interdicting North Korean ships on the high seas. China and Russia resisted a binding use of force resolution because they don’t want US ships prowling their neigbourhood on the pretext of interdicting ships carrying suspicious cargo to or from North Korea. Moscow and Beijing are against Washington acting unilaterally to interdict ships. They would prefer UN flagged ships to carry out the Security Council mandated interdictions/inspections on the high seas and that too after only getting actionable information collated by international experts.
REGIONAL POLICEMAN ON BEHALF OF THE US
The North Korean ship intercepted by the Indian Navy was carrying a cargo of 16,000 tons of sugar bound for West Asia. No evidence of any illegal cargo on board was found after a rigorous search. A couple of days before the ship was searched, sections of the Indian media had carried tendentious stories routed through the western media about North Korea helping Myanmar to build a nuclear reactor. Till the first week of September, the ship is still in the custody of the Indian Navy. Meanwhile the captain of the ship is desperately trying to offload the sugar on board.
The recently retired Naval Chief, Admiral Suresh Mehta, defending the interdiction, told the media that the ship had strayed into Indian waters. Adm. Mehta told the media that “the ship had no business being there”. The law of the sea however clearly states that all ships have the right of “innocent passage” through a country’s territorial waters. Effectively, forcibly boarding a North Korean ship is an infringement of the country’s sovereignty. Many legal experts say that it is almost tantamount to a declaration of war.
According to reports, the unarmed crew protested after the Indian Navy boarded and searched the ship for “nuclear materiel or fuel”. A senior police officer in Port Blair told the media that a preliminary investigation by a team of Indian nuclear scientists failed to detect any radioactive material on board of the ship carrying the huge consignment of sugar. The interdiction of the North Korean ship has been hailed in the western media as an illustration of the “international noose” tightening around North Korea.
It is well known that the top brass of the Indian Navy has been very keen to team up with the US Navy to jointly patrol busy sea lanes like the Malacca straits or the Straits of Hormuz. The top naval brass was particularly keen to sign up to the US sponsored Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). Another former Indian Navy Chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, said in 2005 that “India’s status in world affairs warrants that we should be one of the core countries” to join the PSI. The origin of the PSI can be traced to the interception of another North Korean ship in 2002. US Intelligence had notified Spain, a close ally about the ship moving towards Yemen. The Spanish Navy boarded the ship which was carrying missile parts for the Republic of Yemen. After the Yemeni government protested, the ship was released along with the cargo.
The Indian Navy has been practicing maritime interdiction and counter terrorism maneuvers with the US Navy for many years. India and the US have also finalised a Maritime Cooperation Framework (MCF) to enhance maritime security. India has provided port facilities for US forces engaged in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Admiral Mike Mullen, now the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a visit to India in 2007 had broached the “thousand ship navy” (TSN) concept. The idea is for ships of like minded countries getting together to enhance security on the high seas. Admiral Mullen had said at the time that there was “a very positive response on the TSN from the Indian Navy”.
The TSN in essence is a slightly toned down version of the controversial PSI. The creation of PSI was announced at the 2003 G-8 summit in Krakow, Poland. The purported goal of the PSI is to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction through maritime routes. The Bush administration had chosen not to aggressively push membership of PSI. Other nations were asked to participate in PSI on a case-by-case basis, depending on their capability to make specific contributions to a particular interdiction effort. India is obviously helping out on a case-by-case basis.
The Indian Navy’s action against the North Korean ship came at a time when the Obama administration itself was shifting gears in its Korea policy. The former president, Bill Clinton had just returned from a high profile visit to Pyongyang. He had met with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il for three hours. Accompanying Clinton were old Korea hands with links with the US state department. In the last days of the Clinton administration, Washington was on the verge of establishing diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright had made an official visit to the country in late 1999.
INDIA VIOLATES THE SPIRIT OF NAM
India has had full diplomatic relations with North Korea since independence. North Korea may be currently in a dire economic situation and politically isolated. What it needs now is a helping hand to overcome its problems, much of it resulting from decades of American hostility. Countries like India should help in defusing the tense situation in the Korean peninsula instead of adding fuel to the fire. The Indian action also violates the spirit of NAM, which has called for a peaceful resolution of the Korean conflict. Last year, at the behest of Washington, India had denied over-flight facilities to a North Korean plane coming in from Iran. During the NDA regime, the Indian Navy had interdicted a North Korean ship off the Gujarat coast in 1999 allegedly carrying missile parts for Pakistan.
One of the important goals of the PSI was to make India the regional policeman working on behalf of the US. Bush administration officials had made it clear that the main thrust of the PSI was against North Korea and Iran which were part of president Bush’s “axis of evil”. The PSI, according to most experts, is in contravention to the Law of the Sea. The PSI gives the signatories the right to interdict ships, merely on the suspicion that it may be carrying suspicious materials on the high seas. Under the PSI, even ships carrying fertilisers can be intercepted on the grounds that the cargo can be used to make WMDs. Russia and China are among the states that have said the PSI is an attempt to substitute interdictions for established multilateral treaties and is tailored to isolate specific states like North Korea and Iran.
Domestic political pressure has so far kept New Delhi from formally joining the PSI. The Indian government has however admitted that Indian officials had attended a recent meeting of the PSI. The minister of state for External affairs, Preneet Kaur, told the Rajya Sabha in the third week of July that the US “had shared with us the details and rationale of the PSI”. The minister said that there was no decision taken by the government to join PSI.
Pranab Mukherjee, when he was holding the Defense portfolio in the last government, had stated in January, 2005 that proliferation through sea routes was one of the “biggest problems” and in this context, initiatives such as PSI would “need to be examined in greater detail”. The “New Framework for the US-India Defense Relationship” signed in June 2005 specifically mentions among other things that the two countries would collaborate “to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”.
The latest country to join the PSI is South Korea. Seoul only signed up this year after the North conducted another round of nuclear and missile tests. The right wing government in the South has abandoned the “sunshine policy” of engaging with the North. Relations between the two neighbours had thawed considerably in the last ten years. The previous South Korean government also shared the views of countries like China which believed that forcibly boarding a North Korean ship at sea could spark a military clash that could even escalate into a full-fledged war. After the latest UN Security Council resolution expanding and tightening the sanctions on the North was passed, many commentators in the region had warned that the move was fraught with danger. Good sense seems to be prevailing in Washington and Pyongyang after the Bill Clinton visit. There are indications that the six party talks to resolve the crisis in the Korean peninsula will be resuming soon.