The 'So San' affair
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 20 December, 2002
BEGAN as high drama with the seizure of a ship laden
with Scud missiles rapidly turned to farce last week when the
United States was obliged to hand over the weapons to their legal
owner - Yemen.
Spanish warships stopped the
unflagged freighter, So San, 600 miles off the Horn of Africa
after US intelligence had tracked its journey from North Korea. It
was found to be carrying 15 Scud missiles with conventional
warheads and 85 drums of unidentified chemicals hidden under bags
Disappointingly for some, US
officials made clear almost immediately that the cargo was not
suspected of heading towards Iraq but was most probably destined
for Yemen, America's latest ally in the war on terrorism.
Although the seizure was clearly
meant to hit North Korea, an "axis of evil" member which
is eager to sell its missiles wherever possible, there appears to
have been little thought in Washington as how the intended
recipient might react.
Yemen has been a customer for
North Korean weaponry for some time, but is understood to have
promised the US that the purchases would end. Possibly the US
assumed that the latest shipment broke this promise and that Yemen
would therefore disown it.
A Bush administration official,
quoted by CNN, suggested the vessel had been intercepted
sufficiently far from Yemen to allow the Sana'a government a
face-saving way out. The choice, the official said, was between
"plausible deniability" and "slap 'em in the
Not being slapped in the face,
presumably, was to be Yemen's reward for its help in rounding up
supporters of al-Qaeda - but Yemen refused to play along.
In Sana'a, foreign minister Abu
Bakr al-Qirbi summoned the unpopular American ambassador, Edmund
Hull, and gave him a protest letter.
"The cargo belongs the Yemeni
government and its armed forces for defence purposes, and it will
not reach a third party," the letter said.
"Yemen has no hostile
intentions against any one, and its possession of these weapons
will not cause harm to the international peace and security."
A similar protest went to the
Spanish government, which had merely followed American orders in
arresting the vessel.
Yemen also insisted that the
shipment was not a new purchase but part of an old one which the
Americans already knew about.
On instructions from President
George Bush, the vessel was then allowed on its way.
"There is no provision under
international law prohibiting Yemen from accepting delivery of
missiles from North Korea," White House spokesman Ari
"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."
By no means everyone accepts this
interpretation of the law. Several experts quoted by the
Washington Post suggest that the So San was infringing various
laws and its cargo would almost certainly have been confiscated on
a technicality if the customer had been Iran, for example, rather
Whether Yemen actually needs the
missiles is another matter. They have a relatively short range and
are notoriously inaccurate, with only a 50-50 chance of landing
within a kilometre of their target.
However, Yemen's armed forces
inherited Scuds from the Marxist regime that ruled the south
before unification in 1990, and may simply have been trying to
replenish or upgrade old stocks at bargain prices - since North
Korea is desperate to sell.
Despite clashes with both Saudi
Arabia and Eritrea in the recent past, Yemen has not used Scuds
against its neighbours, though southern forces fired at least five
into the north during the 1994 civil war. One landed near the
presidential palace and another hit the historic old city of
Sana'a, killing a number of civilians.
For Washington, the So San affair
is not only hugely embarrassing but threatens to damage its
non-proliferation policy against North Korea.
interdiction strategy is failing its first test," Joseph
Cirincione, a counterproliferation expert at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, told the Washington Post.
"The problem is that the
administration has shifted the emphasis from eliminating weapons
to eliminating regimes. It is okay for countries like Pakistan or
Yemen to have missiles, but not Iraq ... this is a double standard
that is impossible to uphold in the real world."