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The seizure and release of a North Korean ship carrying Scud missiles bound for Yemen highlights two serious international issues: Pyongyang’s readiness to export destabilizing weapons and the proliferation of ballistic missiles. The ship and its cargo were released because there was no apparent violation of international law. That is not reassuring. The world needs a more effective arms-control framework to check the proliferation of such missiles — and North Korea must be a member of such a regime.

Last week’s incident was no surprise. United States intelligence had been tracking the North Korean vessel, the So San, since it left Nanpo harbor several weeks ago. It was boarded in the Arabian Sea by Spanish Marines, who then turned the ship over to the U.S. The interdiction was legal both under the terms of the United Nations resolution that authorized the war against terrorism and the Law of the Sea, which allows the crew of a vessel to board another “if the ship is without nationality,” i.e., not flying a flag. Although the So San carried Cambodian registration, there was no normal identification on the ship.

Upon inspection, the marines discovered 15 Scud missiles and other weapon-related cargo hidden under sacks of cement. The attempt to hide the shipment, the failure of the crew to identify its nationality and the absence of paperwork aroused suspicions about the weapons’ destination until the government of Yemen revealed that it had purchased them. After the U.S. received promises from the Yemeni government that the weapons would only be used for defensive purposes and would not be transferred, the ship was allowed to continue.

The Middle East does not need more missiles. Regional stability is not enhanced by weapons with offensive capability; the Yemeni government’s pledge notwithstanding, the Scuds can be used to threaten neighbors. Moreover, the money that North Korea earned from the shipment — estimated at about $50 million, nearly a month’s average trade earnings for that country — can be used to refine or develop new technologies that will ultimately threaten Japan’s national security.

Nonetheless, the vessel and its cargo were released. Not only was the shipment legal, but the war against terrorism obliged the U.S. to accommodate Yemen. The country has become a valuable ally in that fight, detaining more than 100 people allegedly linked to al-Qaeda working closely with U.S. special forces to capture ranking operatives in the organization. That is quite a turn-about for a country that once provided a haven for Osama bin Laden.

The incident shows that the world needs an international arms-control treaty to control the proliferation of ballistic-missile technology. In fact, there is such an agreement — the Missile Technology Control Regime. The MTCR was launched in 1987 as a multilateral arrangement among seven nations that saw a need for export controls on missiles and missile technology that could be used for nuclear weapons. In the years since it began, membership in the group has swelled to 33 and the focus has expanded to cover the transfer of any missiles or missile technologies leading to systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.

The MTCR’s limits are obvious. First, membership is voluntary and North Korea, a country that has exported hundreds of missiles to international hot spots, has not joined. The spread of technology to second-generation producers like North Korea — which copied a Soviet design — will make the impact of this limitation more damaging in years to come. Second, the agreement has no teeth. It is voluntary, and thus has done little to strengthen the international norm prohibiting such transfers.

To remedy that shortcoming, nations gathered in The Hague last month to adopt the International Code of Conduct on Ballistic Missile Proliferation. While the ICOC is not on the level of an international treaty, it is an attempt to create an international rule to limit the proliferation of ballistic missiles. More than 90 countries signed up. Japan has long supported the MTCR and the idea of an ICOC with good reason: Ballistic missiles represent the chief threat to its national security.

There is little likelihood that North Korea will join a missile-technology regime. The country relies heavily on funds earned from missile exports; during negotiations with the U.S. in the 1990s, Pyongyang reportedly offered to end its missile sales, but demanded $1 billion in compensation. Washington refused.

The logic underlying both positions is compelling. That means that the answer lies in a comprehensive solution to the North Korean problem. An essential part of that package should be a missile-control regime. The ICOC could serve as its foundation.

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