What began as a feat of derring-do on the high seas in America's war on terror ended yesterday in a diplomatic dilemma, one that underlines just how complicated, contradictory and perhaps even self-defeating that war will be.
Out on patrol on Monday, 600 miles east of the Horn of Africa, the Spanish destroyer Navarra fired warning shots across the bows of a grimy freighter that was flying no flag, then dispatched a helicopter from which a seven-man special forces commando rappelled down on to the heaving decks of the vessel, called the So San.
The freighter was registered in Cambodia and crewed by Koreans. Its last port of call, the captain claimed, had been in China. Those facts were intriguing enough, but what the boarders found when they searched the cargo was downright scary: 15 Scud ballistic missiles, made in North Korea, and their conventional warheads, with 85 drums of chemical propellant.
The Spanish summoned a nearby US ship, and the So San and its cargo were placed under escort. The spectacular Spanish-American operation seemed to have netted an Exhibit A trophy in President George Bush's campaign against rogue states and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, showing how deserving is North Korea of its ranking in Mr Bush's much-mocked "axis of evil".
The So San, the Pentagon indicated, had been under satellite surveillance from the moment it left the North Korean port of Nampo several weeks ago. The destination of its cargo now appears to have been Yemen, and the Spanish, tipped off by America, moved in as the ship closed on the Gulf region, entering waters whose littoral states are the epicenter of the terror war.
This is what diplomats call the "arc of instability", stretching from a largely lawless Horn of Africa to the west to Pakistan, Afghanistan and India to the east, by way of the Gulf, which may witness an old-fashioned hot war within weeks, if the US leads an attack on Iraq. But Iraq, for once, is this time not directly in the firing line. The So San affair has sorely tried relations between America and Yemen, and turned the spotlight, again, on that archetypal rogue state, North Korea.
Yemen may be a stronghold of Islamic terrorism, where only last month an unmanned CIA Predator drone fired a missile that killed six suspected al-Qa'ida members. But it is also a vaunted and important ally of Washington in the campaign against that terrorism.
It wants the North Korean-made Scud missiles it ordered for its army, and Washington has acknowledged it has no option but to hand them over.
Yesterday, Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, indicated that after fraught consultations at the White House, and conversations between the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, the So San had been released, and was sailing to its intended destination.
North Korea has not subscribed to and thus is not bound by the missile control technology regime adopted by leading weapons producers. The sale of Scuds to Yemen was made public last summer. But that ignores the question of why the missiles should be transported in an unflagged vessel, concealed in unmarked containers covered by bags of cement, the vessel's declared cargo.
It also ignores the longstanding role of North Korea as the most reckless proliferater on Earth of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.
Yesterday the regime in Pyongyang was explicitly named in a secret annex to a new White House document as a prime target for the Bush administration's doctrine of the pre-emptive use of force against an enemy about to employ weapons of mass destruction against America.
But North Korea has long been the archetypal rogue state. It may be unable to feed its own people, but it has no problem producing missiles, chemical, biological and perhaps nuclear weapons, and selling them to countries that have hard currency, or military technology that interests its reclusive leadership.
Korean missile technology has been bought by, among others, Iran and Syria and most recently, it is claimed, Pakistan, which paid with the coin of technology to help Pyongyang's secret effort to develop nuclear weapons. That program, based on enriched uranium, was revealed in October to a stunned United States, in flagrant violation of existing agreements between the two countries.
Whether the North already possesses nuclear warheads is unknown. Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defense Secretary, claims it possesses several. Either way, the threat is enough to render unthinkable an American campaign against North Korea of the type it is contemplating against Iraq, however much the hawks in Washington might yearn to launch one.
In retaliation, Pyongyang would unleash its huge army and terrible weaponry against the South and its capital, Seoul, just 40 miles from the border, as well as the 35,000 US troops in South Korea.
© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd