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Security Initiative Program Needs a Makeover

Trying to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction…

Defense Secretary Robert Gates challenged North Korea to “chart a new course” and warned the communist regime it would be held “fully accountable” for the consequences of transferring nuclear weapons or material to “states or non-state entities.”  That statement explains why a Bush administration anti-proliferation initiative needs new life including broader levels of international cooperation, intelligence sharing and a willingness to take direct action.

In 2003, President Bush launched the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to target the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  PSI encourages participating countries to use their national laws to interdict ships and planes to stop WMD trade.  

But PSI needs an overhaul to keep up with the spread of WMD-related weapons and materials.

On May 26, Seoul reacted to Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test by announcing its decision to join PSI.  North Korea predictably lashed out at South Korea after the announcement warning that it would no longer be bound by the 1953 Armistice Agreement and that “…any hostile act against our peaceful vessels, including search and seizure, will be considered an unpardonable infringement on our sovereignty” and would provoke a military response.

PSI threatens Pyongyang’s primary source of hard currency — the sales of missiles which generates $1.5 billion annually. The communist regime is the leading supplier of Scud missiles and long-range missile technology to the Mideast, South Asia and Northern Africa according to the Central Intelligence Agency. Now, in the wake of Pyongyang’s second atomic test, the U.S. is concerned the regime will try to sell its atomic wares.

“This is a pretty serious moment,” said retired Marine Gen. James Jones, Obama’s national security advisor.  “The imminent threat is the proliferation of [nuclear] technology to other countries and potentially to terrorist organizations and non-state actors.”  But Pyongyang has already been caught repeatedly transferring atomic technology.

A North Korean-owned company, Nomchongang Trading Company, reportedly constructed an atomic reactor in Syria.  Dennis Wilder, a former Bush administration adviser, said Nomchongang “… was the arm of the North Korean government dealing with nuclear issues” in Syria.

In 2007, Israeli fighters destroyed that facility which U.S. intelligence officials described as a plutonium reactor built by North Koreans. The UN’s atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, reported that soil samples taken at the site showed traces of processed uranium.

Pyongyang’s atomic activities extend beyond Syria. North Korea works closely with Iranian and Pakistani atomic experts and one press report states the communists bartered missiles for uranium enrichment technology from Pakistan.  Recently, U.S. and Asian officials said North Korea was “…detected selling equipment to Myanmar that could be used for a nuclear program.”

There are numerous WMD proliferators besides North Korea.  Iran ships missiles to its terror proxies Hizballah and Hamas and may have shared WMD technologies with Venezuela.

In the 1980s, Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan’s leading atomic scientist, set up a black market network that sold nuclear know-how and equipment to Iran, Libya and North Korea.  Now that country is expanding its nuclear program and there is a concern Pakistani scientists or military officers will attempt to sell their newest atomic technology.

Russia helped Iran complete and fuel the Bushehr atomic reactor.  That project provided Tehran nuclear know-how that assists the regime’s weapons program.  Moscow has also spread missile technologies to China, India, Iran and other countries.  

China provided missile and other technology to North Korea and Pakistan. Chinese atomic weapons plans were among the nuclear packages Pakistan sold to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

“Ours remains a world at risk and our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing,” states the 2008 Congressional Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism.  The commission believes that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is likely that a WMD will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”  That’s why PSI “the world community” must act decisively to stop WMD proliferation.

Currently, 95 countries on six continents are PSI participants.  The program started because traditional nonproliferation measures such as diplomacy, arms control and threat reduction programs weren’t stopping states like North Korea.  

John Bolton, former U.S. under-secretary of state for arms control, proposed PSI to close anti-proliferation gaps. The incident that spawned the program was the discovery of 15 Scud missiles hidden under cement on board a North Korean freighter. That shipment was released because U.S. and Spanish authorities which cooperated in the intercept lacked legal authority to seize the ship.  

PSI quickly earned success. The U.S. intercepted aluminum tubes and French and German efforts intercepted sodium cyanide all bound for North Korea weapons programs.  A North Korean cargo vessel, Be Gashing, was detained in Taiwan and chemicals for rocket fuel were confiscated.  

The best know PSI success was the seizure of atomic centrifuge components aboard the German-owned BBC China destined for Libya in 2003.  Allegedly, that operation convinced Libyan president Moammar Gaddafi to renounce his WMD programs and welcome international inspectors to Tripoli to dismantle that country’s WMD programs and long-range missiles.

Secretary Bolton said PSI’s long-term objective is to “… create a web of counter proliferation partnerships through which proliferators will have difficulty carrying out their trade in WMD.”  To achieve this goal PSI partners should take the advice of the 9/11 Commission “to strengthen and expand” by doing the following.

First, PSI states should review national legal authorities for action and approve WMD seizure authority.  Their review must provide for agreements in advance that consent to boarding, searching and seizing cargo of its own flag vessels by other PSI states.

Second, PSI authority must extend to facilities and government transportation.   Domestic laws should govern seizure of suspect cargo at ports and airfields but government vehicles are a special challenge.

Right now government vehicles (ships, planes, trucks) cannot be legally interdicted which is a problem when dealing with countries like North Korea.  In 2002, according to the New York Times, a Pakistani C-130 was reportedly used to ship missiles to North Korea but PSI rules would prohibit interception today.

Third, PSI needs to improve its ability to track and seize dual-use exports.  PSI states must create the authority to legally seize this cargo when there is suspicion it will be used for WMD.  This will require intelligence sharing which is a high hurdle especially among non-NATO allies.

Fourth, PSI efforts must properly resource efforts to target shipments to and from rogue states and terrorists.  Tracking shipments is a complex and resource intensive challenge especially terrorist acquisitions because they depend on actionable intelligence spanning many national jurisdictions.

Finally, every PSI mission requires a risk assessment and national determination.  Do we seize a North Korean ship confirmed by imagery to be loaded with WMD even though the communist regime threatens war?  Just how far are the PSI states willing to go to stop the transfer of WMD?  The answer to such questions will ultimately determine whether PSI succeeds in the dangerous cauldron of global proliferation.

Former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, vice chairman for the WMD Commission, warned “… the risk is growing, not because we’re making no progress but because the enemy is adapting and we must constantly anticipate and adopt as well.”  That’s why PSI must hold proliferators “fully accountable” by adjusting authorities and procedures, sharing intelligence and taking necessary risks to stop, search and seize ships and aircraft suspected of carrying WMD-related weapons and materials. 

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Written By

Robert Maginnis is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, and a national security and foreign affairs analyst for radio and television.

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