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'Victory' at Sea

On the eve of President Obama’s trip to Moscow, the White House is touting what an official described as a “victory” in turning around a suspected North Korean arms shipment bound for Burma. The turn-around appears to be a rare success in the long and frustrating American effort to stop North Korean arms proliferation.

I learned of this incident at sea in an unlikely way, during a trip to Russia, when my cell phone rang at about 2:30 a.m. this morning, Moscow time. It was the White House on the line.

The official told me that the Kang Nam 1, a North Korean ship bound for Burma with a mysterious cargo, had just turned back toward home -- as a result of what he described as a behind-the-scenes pressure campaign from Washington. The official argued that the turn-around at sea was a sign the Obama administration’s firm stand had worked.

“The Burmese said no, we don’t want it,” the official said. He explained that Burmese authorities had contacted North Korea to refuse delivery using an open line -- as if they wanted to make sure the U.S. got the message.

The Kang Nam 1 had embarked more than two weeks ago with a cargo that U.S. officials believed might include banned armed shipments. The U.S. Navy, operating under authority of a recent U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution, was monitoring the ship’s slow progress toward Burma.

Administration officials didn’t want to force an open confrontation by boarding the ship, especially when they weren’t sure what it was carrying. Instead, they pressured governments en route not to allow the Kang Nam 1 to dock at their ports. And the U.S. made clear it hoped that Burma would turn the vessel away if it tried to land.

According to the White House official, that’s just what happened. He argued that the successful American effort to block the arrival of the Korean vessel sends a signal that “Obama has an open hand, but a firm handshake.” Since the official’s call reached my cell phone while I was in Moscow, it’s likely the Russians got the message directly.

By David Ignatius  | July 2, 2009; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Ignatius  | Tags:  David Ignatius  
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Don't know what was promised to China to get Myanmar to not take the shipment, but talking along with our big stick (military budget) is getting things done.

Posted by: jameschirico | July 2, 2009 5:37 PM | Report abuse

With Michael Jackson on the front page, this mysterious ship from North Korea got no play and maybe for the better. The behind the scenes negotiations kept North Korea out of the spotlight, the spotlight "Little Kim" so desperately wants to be the center of when it comes to the United States. Why do the Republicans insist on an aggressive reaction? If they had it their way, our troops would be at the Iranian border via Iraq and we would have blown the North Korean ship to bits and be waiting to see what the crazy North Korean would do next. Is that what we really need, to saber-rattle every time something comes up? Our big stick is President Obama and his intellect to negotiate.

Posted by: alwqb | July 3, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Than Shwe and his cronies are merely trying to keep clean noses in the lead-up to the 2010 "elections" that will, of course, cement their rule. That's the State Peace & Development Council in action! James above is correct: Burma can get all the killin' stuff it wants from China without the trouble.

Posted by: crespa | July 6, 2009 6:59 PM | Report abuse

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