Potential Hot Spots: December 13, 2002


: The Spanish Navy recently intercepted the North Korean freighter Sosan, headed for Yemen,  and it's cargo of SCUD missiles. The frigate "Navarra" stopped Sosan with three bursts of machinegun fire. Sharpshooters  shot out cables running from the Sosans mast, so that a Spanish helicopter could get close enough to land a boarding party of 12 special operations marines on Sosan's deck. None of the 21 crewmen, who claimed to be Cambodians but may have been North Koreans, was injured. The Sosans manifest said she was carrying 40,000 sacks of cement but when the boarding party found a total of 23 unlisted containers: 15 complete SCUD missile bodies, 15 High Explosive conventional warheads, 23 tanks of nitric acid rocket propellant and 85 drums of chemicals. Forces from the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau later boarded the Sosan.

The Sosan had already been operating suspiciously, even if her name and registration number hadn't been painted over while underway. Originally owned by Chinese, she was sold to North Koreans who registered her as the Pan Hope with the Cambodian Shipping Corporation in Singapore. The Cambodian government recently suspended the company's operations, after criticism that the vessels it registered were often not seaworthy and engaged in criminal activities.

Lloyd's Marine Intelligence Unit (LMIU) noted that the 3,500 tons deadweight Sosan has changed her name five times in the past three years and also been registered with four flags since it was built in 1981, two of them now blacklisted. LMIU records had the Sosan under the Cambodian flag until October 2002, when it switched to the North Korean flag and switching to an unknown flag-state in December. By not flying a flag when intercepted, the vessel could also be in contravention of the 1982 U.N. Law of the Sea.

Furthermore, a small coaster like the Sosan doesn't usually travel in international waters. She had only called at ports in Japan, South Korea, Russia, China, Taiwan and the Philippines in the last four years, but not sailed in Middle Eastern waters. All of these activities are indicators of a smugglers' ship. 

On 11 December, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that "while there is authority to stop and search, in this instance there is no authority to seize a shipment of SCUD missiles from North Korea to Yemen and therefore the merchant vessel is being released." The boarding action was meant as a clear message to North Korea, whom Washington fears has shown a willingness to sell weaponry to anyone - including terrorist groups and rogue nations. The search was also a good excuse to see if any chemical or biological weapons had been packed in with these SCUDs.

Yemen's SCUD capability was well-known to the United States and even though Yemen is an "ally" in the War on Terrorism, their need for a surface-to-surface missile capacity is suspicious. In August 2002, the Bush administration imposed sanctions on the North Korean company Changgwang Sinyong Corporation for selling SCUD missile parts to Yemen. At that time, when asked by U.S. authorities why it bought the parts, Yemen apologized and promised not to do so again. President Saleh confirmed that his country possessed North Korean SCUDs on the 25th, but asserted that their purchase was Yemen's legitimate right and that while the U.S. was penalizing North Korea, they hadn't placed any military ban on Yemen.

However, the November and December 2002 North Korean shipments violated the spirit of the July 2001 Yemeni promise to Washington not to purchase other missiles or parts. However, Secretary of State Colin Powell diplomatically concluded that Yemen was entitled to the missiles, because they had been purchased prior to the pledge. The Sosan was allowed to continue her voyage on the 11th.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told the BBC on 12 December that these missiles were bought for defensive purposes and that the deal based on cost effectiveness. Qirbi confirmed that they signed a contract with North Korea to buy this shipment in 1999, but they had no intention of purchasing any more SCUDs. Qirbi said that "Yemen, like every other country in the region, is concerned about its security, about the stability of the region" and that Yemen gave assurances it would not "transfer these missiles to anyone." - Adam Geibel

Yemen maps online at:


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