(NYT) Orange smoke flares burned in waters south of Tokyo Bay as black-clad sailors rappelled Tuesday from a Japan Coast Guard helicopter, landing on the foredeck of a ship adorned with a skull-and-crossbones flag.
While seven television camera crews filmed from a Japan Coast Guard patrol boat, warships from the United States, France and Australia closed in on the “pirate” ship carrying “sarin” poison gas. Part training exercise, part political theater, this international naval interdiction drill, code-named Team Samurai, had a clear audience: North Korea.
“We are sending a signal to everybody who wants to traffic weapons of mass destruction that we have zero tolerance for that,” John R. Bolton, the American under secretary of state for arms control and international security, told reporters on the Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat Izu.
Mr. Bolton, an outspoken critic of North Korea, is among those being mentioned as a contender for national security adviser in a second Bush administration. The exercise, featuring nine ships, seven helicopters and several speed boats filled with commandos, may offer a taste of a future, more hard-line American policy toward Pyongyang.
Mr. Bolton is the architect of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a 15-month-old loose coalition of 60 countries working to curb trafficking in materials for unconventional weapons and their delivery systems.
The exercise here is the 12th group drill, but the first one attended by Mr. Bolton and the first held in North Korea’s vicinity. Although planned months ago, the three-day exercise, which is held by Japan and ends Wednesday, seems to hint of a greater American emphasis on sanctions against Pyongyang if President Bush is re-elected.
While documents relating to the drill made no mention of North Korea, about 600 miles west of here, Mr. Bolton had no such compunctions in an interview.
“There is no doubt that North Korea is the pre-eminent proliferator of ballistic missile technology,” Mr. Bolton said in the officers’ mess. “The currency it earns from weapons and drug sales internationally goes to financing their nuclear weapons program.”
Asked what would be Washington’s “red line” for Pyongyang, he responded: “Our concern is that North Korea is not simply a threat in the region, but its propensity to proliferate weapons of mass destruction technology means that, if they had a potential buyer in the nuclear field, they would sell it.”
Sanctions are the stick that Washington wields to push North Korea to participate in six-nation talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear weapons program and to draw the Communist nation into the world community. In threatening sanctions, the United States has an ally in Japan, a nation still seething over disclosures two years ago that North Korea kidnapped dozens of Japanese in the 1970’s.
“A time limit is necessary at some point, and we must consider such options as sanctions,” Japan’s new foreign minister, Nobutaka Machimura, told Japan’s business daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun last week. With North Korea unwilling to account for the kidnapped Japanese and Japan unwilling to drop the issue, economic relations between Northeast Asia’s richest nation and its poorest are going from bad to worse.
During the first eight months of this year, Japan’s trade with North Korea has dropped to $155 million, 17 percent the level of the comparable period last year. Even without sanctions, North Korea fell this year to 98th place in the rank of Japan’s worldwide exports.
On Monday, North Korea reacted angrily to Japan’s hosting the American-led naval drill, denouncing it as a dress rehearsal for economic sanctions.
“It is quite clear that the exercise is designed to lay a siege to the D.P.R.K. and stifle it, come what may,” Pyongyang’s official news agency said Monday, referring to the initials of the country’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “This is a serious infringement upon the sovereignty of the D.P.R.K. and an intolerable military provocation to it.”