Although the United States waved on a ship carrying ballistics missiles bound for Yemen Wednesday, the fact that the weapons came from North Korea stirred up worries in South Korea and Japan that tensions between the United States and North Korea could escalate. (The United States released the ship after protests from the Yemeni government.)
More than a dozen SCUD missiles were found Tuesday buried under bags of cement on the unflagged freighter San So. The United States had been keeping watch on the vessel since it left North Korea a few days earlier. North Korea hasn’t responded to charges that it manufactured and sold the weapons, but the Times of India reports that Yemen has admitted buying the weapons from North Korea.
In a piece headlined “Seizure Shocks Government, Parties,” the Korean Herald said the interception brings the issue of North Korea and the security of the peninsula into full relief in these final days before the South Korean presidential election on Dec. 19. Of course the three leading candidates all called for the north to end its weapons program, but GNP, the conservative majority party, used the incident as fodder to needle front-runner Roh Moo Moo-hyun, who backs lame-duck President Kim Dae-jung’s policy of open communication with North Korea. “It is shocking that the North was found to be continuing its missile sales even after its earlier confession that it has a nuclear weapons development program,” a spokesman for the party told the Herald.
Roh urged the United States to reopen talks with the communist country to find a diplomatic resolution. The Korean Times, which reports that the United States told South Korea of the plans to halt the ship, frets, “What worries the government is the possibility that the U.S. will opt for more serious measures against the North if diplomatic efforts are unsuccessful.”
Meanwhile, the Japan Times reported that the Japanese government reacted to the news of the missiles’ origin with a sort of “let’s wait and see” response. A Mainichi Daily News piece hypes the incident in the headline “North Korea Scud Discovery Rocks Toyko” but, like most of the stories, doesn’t back up that sweaty-palm reaction in the story. The article does quote a government official taking a surprisingly sympathetic view of weapons sale: “Probably this (missiles trade) is the only way they (Pyongyang) can earn foreign currency.” But he adds, “to export them to a sensitive region like Middle East is highly undesirable.”