WASHINGTON (Reuters) - South Korea’s decision to join the Proliferation Security Initiative closed a key hole in that alliance of states working to stop shipments of weapons of mass destruction, but the U.S.-led program cannot stop North Korean traffic in illicit arms without China’s cooperation.
Following North Korea’s nuclear test on Monday, Seoul announced it was joining the ad hoc alliance. Pyongyang promptly threatened to attack the South if it were to search North Korean vessels under the program.
Analysts said the PSI, launched in 2003 under the Bush administration to stop suspect ships and planes in an effort to curb the spread of nuclear technology and other weapons, has some key gaps and shortcomings.
Right now, a glaring weakness is that China is not part of the 95-nation grouping.
“China’s lack of participation is noticeable because a lot of North Korean proliferation activities are going through China, either wittingly or unwittingly,” said Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Even with South Korea now on board, China has shown little stomach for enforcing previous U.N. sanctions against North Korea and Chinese entities often evade what curbs Beijing has tried to impose on sales of banned goods, analysts say.
“As much as Beijing wants to enforce some of these things, at every level, you’re only as strong as your weakest link,” said analyst John Park of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
A key target of an effective PSI would have to be flights over Chinese airspace to North Korea from Iran and other Middle Eastern states, as well as Pakistan.
The Obama administration has condemned North Korea’s second nuclear test since late 2006 and is working through the United Nations and with allies on a coordinated response. But it has not made public whether it will revitalize the ad hoc PSI.
“We continue to look at ways to ensure — through the access of infrastructure, either banks or ports — that we’re doing, and our allies are doing, all that we can to ensure that they’re not moving material that could be used to produce a weapon of mass destruction,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Wednesday.
Klingner said South Korea’s participation mainly closed a “symbolic gap” in a loose scheme similar to a posse in old Western movies mustered as a last line of defense.
“There’s no headquarters there. It’s more of a consortium,” he said.
Other analysts compared the task of the PSI to finding a needle in a haystack — as challenging as the international fight against Somali pirates in vast stretches of the Indian Ocean.
British North Korea expert Hazel Smith wrote in a study of shipping databases published in February that North Korean ships faced too much scrutiny in the world’s ports to be a significant conduit for weapons of mass destruction.
The weapons trade North Korea conducts, such as missile sales to Iran or Pakistan, is more likely moved by aircraft or allied vessels than on North Korean-owned or -flagged ships, her report said.
Pyongyang’s threat on Wednesday to “immediately respond with a powerful military strike” if South Korea boarded a North Korean ship should also be taken seriously at a time when the North seems bent on escalating tensions, said Park.
“Even if the South Koreans did come up with a very surgical and sterile way to get involved in PSI without direct interdiction of North Korean vessels, North Korea would still define this as a direct attack at their jugular,” he said.