The 'So San' affair
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 20 December, 2002
WHAT 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 of cement.
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 face".
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 Fleischer said.
"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 than Yemen.
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.
"The administration's 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."