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RAY SUAREZ: We get some perspectives now from Joel Wit, a former State Department official who focused on North Korea and non- proliferation issues; Retired Marine Corps Colonel Edward Badolato was a Naval attache to a number of Middle Eastern countries, and has been involved in planning naval interdiction operations. And Jillian Schwedler, an assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland; she has written about and traveled about extensively in Yemen.
Professor Schwedler was this arms acquisition from North Korea, a breach of spirit or the letter of any agreements to isolate North Korea from the international arms market?
JILLIAN SCHWEDLER: Well, on Yemen’s part it’s certainly not a breach of a letter of any agreement. There’s been discussion there were informal agreements and debates within Yemen and with the United States representatives about not pursuing acquisition of arms from North Korea in the future.
This was very likely an agreement that had been concluded previous to those discussions a few months ago.
And so Yemen is absolutely in no violation and the U.S. government has said this as well.
RAY SUAREZ: A short time ago we heard Secretary Powell saying he took at face value Yemen’s statement that the country was the final destination for the missiles.
Has Yemen been a stable, reliable actor on the international stage so that you might take that at face value as well?
JILLIAN SCHWEDLER: I would take that at face value.
Yemen has been very forthright and cooperative with the United States in the so-called war on terrorism. And Yemen has been very cooperative in allowing U.S. government access, providing information to the U.S. government. And there’s no history or reason to suspect that the government of Yemen is in any way hiding anything.
Acquisition of arms is a typical thing a government. It’s a demonstration of sovereignty. And the Yemeni government has come under domestic criticism for its close relationship with the United States. And this is perhaps a move that also illustrates that the Yemeni government is exercising is own sovereignty continuously.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s go from the buyers to the sellers, Joel Wit. What does this mean — the seizure of a North Korean cargo that included missiles?
JOEL WIT: Well, I think it just demonstrates to everyone the reality of the situation in dealing with North Korea. They are a large exporter of ballistic missiles and they export those missiles to many regions of the world, including the Middle East and also to South Asia.
And the problem is while the administration has taken a very tough stance towards the export of these weapons. In reality when it faces, you know, the real world as we see today it has had to let the shipment go through.
RAY SUAREZ: Is the Scud — I know it entered a lot of Americans’ vocabulary for the first time during the Gulf War — is it a very powerful, potent weapon, a destabilizing one?
JOEL WIT: Well, I think it is a powerful weapon. It is certainly psychologically a powerful weapon. But the point is the Scuds are four decades old technology and these are old Soviet missiles. So they are not modern technology.
But when you introduce them into regions of the world such as the Middle East and South Asia, then they can be very destabilizing.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, is Yemen acquiring them something that would worry somebody, for instance, when you were working in non-proliferation? Would that have concerned you a lot?
JOEL WIT: Well, you know, I’m not sure if it would have been concerned us a lot.
I would defer to my colleague about the situation in that part of the world. The point is though that we have known for sometime that North Korea sells missiles to countries like Yemen, like Egypt and others who we have good relationships with.
And yet we have not done much about it because the political relationship is more important than our nonproliferation objectives and the administration is starting to realize this.
RAY SUAREZ: Colonel Badolato what is involved in intercepting a ship on the high seas?
COL. EDWARD BADOLATO (Ret.): Well, The first thing to be involved is to get a target, to understand that a ship, for example in this case, we have longstanding international maritime law, principle that a stateless vessel can be stopped by a warship and can be boarded and checked out and so forth.
This ship by the virtue of the fact that it did not have a flag flying was known as a stateless vessel. Therefore, it was a legal maneuver to have the Spanish vessel attempt to stop it and then board it along with the U.S. troops.
Getting on board the ship is essentially a maritime, naval type operation; we’re generally using Special Forces, Seals for the most part, are used to doing this type of operation. Launching many times off of a — on a helicopter and then being let down on the ship to perform an inspection after he is come under control either stopped or going very slowly to allow this to happen, to put these people on board; the boarding party essentially going on board with both Spanish and American in this case.
I have to say that we have a lot of experience in this area. We have been there for months with a coalition maritime force looking for essentially Osama bin Laden’s fleet which is functioning around there doing its thing and additionally looking for the fleeting al-Qaida forces coming out of Afghanistan trying to get over to the Horn of Africa and transporting various weapons and things of this nature.
It’s not unusual to do this and we have our coalition navies on watch to stop this type activity.
RAY SUAREZ: Earlier Ari Fleischer, the president’s spokesman, said the reason the administration let the ship continue to Yemen and the delivery of the missiles go forward was that they have to follow international law in this case.
Does that mean that the stopping and searching of the ship was a violation, however minor, of international law?
COL. EDWARD BADOLATO (Ret.): I don’t read it that way. Most of my Navy friends that we have talked with about this as it happened since Monday agree that it was well within the rights of what we do. We do it on a daily basis.
We’re doing this in the Caribbean against drugs in the contiguous waters of U.S. with Coast Guard and Navy vessels on watch and also in the Mediterranean with some of our colleagues looking at some potential infractions of shipments going into some of the old Balkan areas and so forth.
There seems to have been a magical political transformation of the ship and what it was doing from being illegal to legal there while it was out on the high seas.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Schwedler, that magical transformation is that an outgrowth of the state our relations with Yemen, trying to develop a closer partnership with them, a new partnership with them?
JILLIAN SCHWEDLER: I think it very much is, and I agree with some of the comments that have been said in that regard. It’s very much a reflection of the political relationships that are more important to the U.S. government right now.
It’s quite concerned that a government is violating our war on “evilism,” our concern about the “axis of evil” — that they are acquiring weapons from a country that the U.S. would not like not be shipping weapons but at the end of the day that relation is much more significant, it’s much more important and the U.S. government is going to maintain that relationship as is the government of Yemen also would like to maintain that relationship.
RAY SUAREZ: And Joel Wit, just because the buyers have been let off the hook where does this leave the sellers? The U.S. is not going to blockade Korea?
JOEL WIT: Well, no, and this is — ‘reality bites.’ The United States has made a number of harsh, tough statements about North Korea’s tendency to proliferate missiles in particular and yet when confronted with these harsh realities we have had to tone that down in our actions.
So in effect, if I was a North Korean seeing this, I would think “well, gee American rhetoric is tough, but I can go about my standard operating procedure, which is sending these missiles overseas.”
RAY SUAREZ: Is there intelligence value to an interdiction like this kind even if the sale and delivery goes through, Colonel?
COL. EDWARD BADOLATO (Ret.): There’s always intelligence value. As a matter of fact, we had a lot of intelligence; that’s one of the reasons we were keeping an eye on this particular ship.
We had weeks of intelligence as to which one had some weapons and maybe something else on it, but getting a look at the Scuds and what is on there, even though it’s an old weapon, even though we know everything there is to know about this particular model of the Scud and so forth, there’s always the intelligence value to be able to get the canister markings and things of this nature. It’s not the greatest intelligence find, but it’s useful information to get this type of data.
RAY SUAREZ: And when you hear that the Spanish navy was involved in this in partnership with the United States Navy, is that a stepping up on the part of Spain as a NATO member? A fairly — compared to some of the others — a fairly recent NATO member?
COL. EDWARD BADOLATO (Ret.): We have a number of NATO and other coalition countries involved in this area doing this. We have the British and the Italians and the Germans and the others are there. This particular instance happened to have a Spanish vessel on duty doing this. But I think it’s a credit to the building the coalition to do this naval operation down there in the Horn of Africa.
RAY SUAREZ: Professional Schwedler, tell us a bit about the recent past of Yemen and why the United States has been so careful to court the country in the recent war on terrorism.
JILLIAN SCHWEDLER: In terms of relationship with the United States we have the October 2000 attack on the Cole, which was of great concern and the Yemeni government quite quickly was willing to cooperate.
It’s important to remember that al-Qaida members that exist in Yemen such that they are and the numbers are — estimates run from a few dozen to perhaps a hundred to a hundred and fifty. So we’re not talking about a large number of al-Qaida operatives. Nonetheless, most certainly they are there. They are also a problem for the Yemeni government. The Yemeni government is happy to have assistance to help to try to eliminate them. And, the U.S. has seen this as an opportunity build a new ally in that part of the Arabian Peninsula.
It’s been a bit tense and the Yemeni government is quite, as I mentioned, coming under domestic attacks for that relationship with the United States but nonetheless both have sought to build the relationship.
RAY SUAREZ: Joel Wit, the Koreans most recently have been in the headlines because of their admission they have continued with nuclear programs they had promised to abandon.
How does this latest incident fit into the relationship between the United States and North Korea?
JOEL WIT: Of course the relationship between the United States and North Korea right now is almost non-existent. So this will make a nonexistent relationship even worse. The fact is that the revelations about the nuclear program and the subsequent actions by the United States have backed North Korea into a corner.
At the moment we’re at a situation where both sides are trying to keep the tensions under a lid. But that may not be possible much longer. And instances like this threaten to escalate those tensions.
RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Wit, Professor, Colonel, thanks a lot.