U.S. to press ships from N. Korea for inspections

By FROM STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS Published: June 16, 2009

The U.S. Navy, acting on authority granted by the United Nations, is prepared to intercept North Korean ships and request permission to search them for arms or nuclear technology, a Pentagon official said Tuesday.

Sailors cannot board a ship by force, but if an inspection is refused, the Navy can follow it to the next port and again press for an inspection. The approach is authorized by a U.N. Security Council resolution approved Friday.

President Barack Obama and visiting South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said at the White House on Tuesday that the resolution must be fully enforced, but noted that it did not authorize military force. Lee said he and Obama agreed that “under no circumstance are we going to allow North Korea to possess nuclear weapons.”

The communist government has tested two underground nuclear devices and is believed by U.S. intelligence to possess material to make several nuclear bombs.

At the Pentagon, press secretary Geoff Morrell said the U.S. has yet to intercept a North Korean ship.

“At this point, all we’re doing is monitoring North Korean shipments and, hopefully, it does not become necessary,” he said.

On Tuesday morning, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized the U.N. resolution in a Twitter message, writing, “This is a half measure — those ships should be stopped and searched … if there is probable cause.”

Morrell said the resolution represented definite progress by a unified Security Council and that the U.S. would not be alone in the effort.

“So presumably, this would not just be us, should we find reasonable grounds to presume that one of these ships is carrying banned goods, but similarly if the Russian navy were to see that, or the Chinese navy were to see that, or the Republic of Korean navy or the Japanese navy. Other navies are also empowered by this resolution to deal with this problem, and that is a step in the right direction.”

On Capitol Hill, Pentagon officials told a Senate committee that North Korea’s missiles could hit the United States in as few as three years if the North continues progress on its weapons system.

U.S. officials have said the North Koreans appear to be making preparations for a third nuclear test. North Korea also has said it would regard efforts to enforce U.N. sanctions as an act of war.

Asked by a reporter whether he believes his country is under threat of attack from the North, Lee said, “They will think twice about taking any measures that they will regret. North Korea may wish to do so, but of course they will not be able to.”

Obama said that North Korea’s record of threatening other countries and spreading nuclear technology around the world means it should not be recognized as a legitimate nuclear power.

“We will pursue denuclearization on the Korean peninsula vigorously,” Obama said. “So we have not come to a conclusion that North Korea will or should be a nuclear power. Given their past behavior, given the belligerent manner in which they are constantly threatening their neighbors, I don’t think there’s any question that that would be a destabilizing situation that would be a profound threat not only to United States’ security but to world security.”

Nor will the international community respond to North Korean provocations, such as additional underground nuclear tests, by offering financial incentives, Lee said.

“They will not be able to gain compensation by provoking a crisis,” he said.

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