In murky waters

Published : Sep 11, 2009 00:00 IST

North Korean ship mv San, which was detained by the Indian Navy, anchored near Port Blair on August 9.-SANJIB KUMAR ROY/REUTERS

North Korean ship mv San, which was detained by the Indian Navy, anchored near Port Blair on August 9.-SANJIB KUMAR ROY/REUTERS

THE Indian Navy has rushed in where the United States Navy fears to tread. In the first week of August, Indian Navy personnel seized and boarded a North Korean cargo ship, mv San, off the Andaman coast on the suspicion that it might be carrying nuclear material. This is the first time a North Korean ship has been detained under sanctions adopted by the United Nations Security Council Resolution in June. The resolution was adopted after North Korea conducted a round of nuclear tests and test-fired missiles this year.

The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, did not dare board the North Korean ship, mv Kang Nam 1, suspected of carrying banned cargo, despite trailing it in the Pacific Ocean for around three weeks in the middle of the year. North Korea had warned that such a move would be tantamount to a declaration of war. The job of interdiction of North Korean ships seems to have been subcontracted by the U.S. to willing third countries.

Russia and China, along with many other countries in the region, have been quite lukewarm in their support of the U.S.-initiated sanctions against North Korea, particularly on the question of interdicting its ships on the high seas. They resisted a binding resolution on the use of force as they did not want U.S. ships prowling their neighbourhood 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 prefer U.N.-flagged ships carrying out the Security Council-mandated interdictions/inspections on the high seas. And that too, only after getting actionable information collated by international experts.

The North Korean ship intercepted by the Indian Navy was carrying 16,000 tonnes of sugar bound for West Asia. According to reports, the unarmed crew protested when Indian Navy personnel boarded and searched the ship for nuclear material or fuel. A senior police officer in Port Blair told the media that a preliminary investigation by a team of Indian nuclear scientists had failed to detect any radioactive material on board.

However, a couple of days before the ship was searched, sections of the Indian media carried tendentious stories, apparently routed through the Western media, about North Korea helping Myanmar build a nuclear reactor. The interdiction of the ship has been hailed in the Western media as an illustration of the international noose tightening around North Korea.

Defending the action, Indian Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta told the media that the ship had strayed into Indian waters. He said it had no business being there. The Law of the Sea, however, clearly states that all ships have the right of innocent passage through a countrys territorial waters. Forcibly boarding a North Korean ship is an infringement of the countrys sovereignty. Many legal experts say that it is almost tantamount to a declaration of war.

It is well known that the top brass of the Indian Navy have been keen to team up with the U.S. Navy to jointly patrol busy sea lanes such as the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz. They are particularly keen to join the U.S.-sponsored Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). The former Indian Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash said in 2005 that Indias status in world affairs warrants that we should be one of the core countries to join the PSI.

The Indian Navy has been practising maritime interdiction and counter-terrorism manoeuvres with the U.S. Navy for many years. India and the U.S. have also finalised a Maritime Cooperation Framework (MCF) to enhance maritime security. India has provided port facilities for U.S. forces engaged in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Admiral Mike Mullen, now the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a visit to India in 2007, broached the thousand ship navy (TSN) concept. The idea is for ships of like-minded countries to get together to enhance security on the high seas. He then said that there was a very positive response on the TSN from the Indian Navy.

The TSN in essence is a toned-down version of the controversial PSI. The origin of the PSI can be traced to the interception of another North Korean ship in 2002. After U.S. intelligence notified Spain, a close ally, about the ship moving towards Yemen, personnel of the Spanish Navy boarded the ship, which was carrying missile parts for the Republic of Yemen. It was released along with the cargo following protests by the Yemeni government.

The creation of the PSI was announced at the 2003 G8 Summit in Krakow, Poland. Its purported goal is to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction through maritime routes. The George W. Bush administration chose not to aggressively push the membership of the PSI. Other nations were asked to participate in the 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 Navys action against the North Korean ship comes at a time when the Barack Obama administration itself is shifting gears on its Korea policy. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has just returned home from a high-profile visit to Pyongyang. He met with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il for three hours. Accompanying Clinton were old Korea hands in the U.S. State Department. In the last days of the Clinton administration, Washington was on the verge of establishing diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Clintons Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, made an official visit to the country in late 1999.

India has had full diplomatic relations with North Korea since Independence. North Korea may be currently in dire economic straits and politically isolated. What it needs is a helping hand to overcome its problems, much of them resulting from decades of American hostility. Countries such as 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 the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which has called for a peaceful resolution of the Korean conflict. Last year, at the behest of the U.S., India denied overflight facilities to a North Korean plane coming in from Iran. During the National Democratic Alliance regime, the Indian Navy interdicted a North Korean ship, allegedly carrying missile parts for Pakistan, off the Gujarat coast in 1999.

Why did the Indian Navy indulge in this act of bravado on the high seas? Was the Indian government trying to score brownie points in Washington? One of the important goals of the PSI is to make India the regional policeman working on behalf of the U.S.

Bush administration officials had made it clear that the main thrust of the PSI was against North Korea and Iran, which were part of the Presidents axis of evil. The PSI, according to most experts, is in contravention of the Law of the Sea. The PSI gives signatories the right to interdict ships merely on the suspicion that they may be carrying suspicious materials on the high seas. Under the PSI, even ships carrying fertilizers can be intercepted on the grounds that the cargo can be used to make weapons of mass destruction. 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 such as North Korea and Iran.

The latest country to join the PSI is South Korea, which signed up only this year after North Korea conducted a round of nuclear and missile tests. Relations between the two neighbours had thawed considerably in the last 10 years. But the right-wing government in South Korea has abandoned the sunshine policy of engaging with North Korea.

The previous South Korean government also shared the views of countries such as 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 U.N. Security Council resolution tightening the sanctions against North Korea was adopted, many commentators in the region warned that the move was fraught with danger. Good sense seems to be prevailing in Washington and Pyongyang after Clintons visit. There are indications that the six-party talks to resolve the crisis in the Korean peninsula will be resuming soon.

Domestic political pressure has so far kept New Delhi from formally joining the PSI. The Indian government has, however, admitted that Indian officials attended a recent meeting of the PSI. Minister of State for External Affairs Preneet Kaur told the Rajya Sabha in the third week of July that the U.S. had shared with us the details and rationale of the PSI. The Minister said there was no decision taken by the government to join the PSI.

Pranab Mukherjee, as Defence Minister in the previous government, stated in January 2005 that proliferation through sea routes was one of the biggest problems and in this context, initiatives such as the PSI would need to be examined in greater detail. The New Framework for the U.S.-India Defence Relationship signed in June 2005 specifically states that among other things the two countries will collaborate to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

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