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South Korea Won...t Join US in Intercepting Ships From North

By Norimitsu Onishi


South Korea said Monday that it would not join a U.S.-led effort to intercept North Korean ships suspected of carrying unconventional weapons or related cargo, raising fresh doubts about Washington’s drive to punish the North for its nuclear test last month.

The South Korean government of President Roh Moo-hyun has come under increasing pressure from the political opposition and its American ally to join the campaign since the test.

The effort to punish North Korea has become a part of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a three-year-old, American-led program to coordinate and develop procedures for intercepting smugglers of unconventional weapons around the world.

But even as Washington sought to build unity ahead of a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Hanoi this week, and the possible resumption of six-nation talks over the North’s nuclear program early next month, Seoul made it clear that it was hewing to its policy of avoiding confrontation with the North.

South Korea has supported, but not joined, the security program, fearing that inspecting North Korean ships by force could lead to a military confrontation.

“The government has declared that it has a special status of officially supporting the goals and principles of the Proliferation Security Initiative, while not formally joining it in consideration of special circumstances on the Korean Peninsula,” Park In-kook, the deputy foreign minister, said at a news conference.

A loose coalition of countries that have joined, including Australia and Japan, have carried out naval exercises to practice for interdictions, and a few countries have already boarded ships to and from North Korea in ports throughout Asia.

But the legality of intercepting ships in international waters remains unclear, even under a U.N. Security Council resolution passed after the North’s test. The resolution calls upon countries, though it does not require them, to inspect cargo in and out of North Korea.