U.S. Seeks to Interdict North Korean Shipping

Marines practicing visit, board, search and seizure tactics (USN)

Published Jan 12, 2018 1:33 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a meeting with allies in Vancouver, B.C. next Tuesday, the United States and Canada are expected to ask for the authority to interdict vessels suspected of violating sanctions on North Korea. South Korea recenly seized two product tankers on charges of making illicit high-seas fuel transfers to North Korean ships, but these arrests occurred in port, not in international waters. 

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland will be in attendance, along with high-level officials from France, Britain, India, Japan, South Korea and other nations that fought in the Korean War, which ended six decades ago. China and Russia, which both oppose the proposal for maritime interdiction, have not been invited to the summit. In a statement Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that excluding certain U.N. Security Council members will "only create divisions within the international community and harm joint efforts to appropriately resolve the Korean peninsula nuclear issue."

Brian Hook, the State Department's policy director, said that the U.S. believes that its diplomatic pressure campaign is the best way to force North Korea to the negotiating table, and that maritime interdiction will help to crack down on smuggling and sanctions-busting. In addition, he suggested that the Security Council should add to the list of vessels that are explicitly banned from international ports for suspected sanctions violations. 

Analyst Mark Valencia, a researcher at China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies, warned last year that attempts to authorize high-seas interdictions would essentially legalize an act of war - an opposed boarding of another flag state's vessel - and potentially undermine the principle of freedom of navigation. A previous proposal submitted by the U.S. attempted to address these concerns by restricting "non-consensual inspections" to merchant ships, and limiting the authorization to apply only "with respect to the current situation in the DPRK."

In December, North Korea said that a maritime interdiction campaign could lead to military conflict. "Should the United States and its followers try to enforce the naval blockade against our country, we will see it as an act of war and respond with merciless self-defensive counter-measures as we have warned repeatedly," a government-controlled media outlet said. 

Contact re-established

North Korea recently reinitiated contact with South Korea by agreeing to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics, which will be held east of Seoul in February. Athletic competitions have traditionally provided a low-stakes venue for conversations between the two countries, which have technically been at war since 1950. 

It is unclear whether Pyongyang has also initiated conversations with the United States. In comments to the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump said that he "probaby [has] a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un," the North Korean leader. "I have relationships with people. I think you people are surprised," he added. Trump would not confirm whether he has spoken with Kim, saying only that he didn't want to comment. "I'm not saying I have or haven't," he said. 

[Top image: Marines practicing visit, board, search and seizure tactics aboard USS Mesa Verde, 2011 (USN)]