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The Promise of the Proliferation Security Initiative

By early December 2002, the U.S. government knew that an unflagged merchant ship, the So San, was transporting ballistic missiles and missile components from North Korea to the Middle East. As the ship traversed the Arabian Sea, U.S. officials asked the government of Spain, whose navy had been trailing the So San, to stop and search it. Their demands that the ship stop ignored, Spanish special forces rappelled onto the deck of the moving ship. Aboard, they discovered 15 complete Scud missiles, 15 warheads, and barrels of rocket propellant hidden under sacks of concrete. Two days later, Yemen admitted that it was the intended recipient.

The Bush administration was keen to stop such traffic, but the ship was allowed to continue on its voyage. Although the initial search of the So San was considered legal because the ship had tried to conceal its nationality, international law did not authorize confiscating what this or that nation considered contraband. "We have looked at this matter thoroughly," the White House told reporters, "and there is no provision under international law prohibiting Yemen from accepting delivery of missiles from North Korea."

The inability to prevent the So San from delivering its cargo revealed a related flaw in the international nonproliferation framework. Less than a year later, the United States attempted to fill the gap by launching a new international arrangement: the Proliferation Security Initiative, a cooperative effort aimed at stopping the transfer of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Under the auspices of the PSI, countries can share intelligence and coordinate their militaries to interdict ships and aircraft suspected of carrying such weapons or the materials from which they can be made.

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