After demanding sanctions for months and years on North Korea — and finally getting the UN to acquiesce, in some fashion — the US allowed North Korea to sell exactly the kind of war materials we wanted sanctioned. The customer makes the difference, the New York Times reports, as the US needed to ensure that the Ethiopian military had enough materiel to assist in the war against radical Islamists:
Three months after the United States successfully pressed the United Nations to impose strict sanctions on North Korea because of the country’s nuclear test, Bush administration officials allowed Ethiopia to complete a secret arms purchase from the North, in what appears to be a violation of the restrictions, according to senior American officials.
The United States allowed the arms delivery to go through in January in part because Ethiopia was in the midst of a military offensive against Islamic militias inside Somalia, a campaign that aided the American policy of combating religious extremists in the Horn of Africa.
American officials said that they were still encouraging Ethiopia to wean itself from its longstanding reliance on North Korea for cheap Soviet-era military equipment to supply its armed forces and that Ethiopian officials appeared receptive. But the arms deal is an example of the compromises that result from the clash of two foreign policy absolutes: the Bush administration’s commitment to fighting Islamic radicalism and its effort to starve the North Korean government of money it could use to build up its nuclear weapons program. …
It is also not the first time that the Bush administration has made an exception for allies in their dealings with North Korea. In 2002, Spain intercepted a ship carrying Scud missiles from North Korea to Yemen. At the time, Yemen was working with the United States to hunt members of Al Qaeda operating within its borders, and after its government protested, the United States asked that the freighter be released. Yemen said at the time that it was the last shipment from an earlier missile purchase and would not be repeated.
Rock, meet hard place. The US could not sell the necessary arms to Ethiopia, either because of trade restrictions or because of the higher cost. The North Koreans specialize in cheap knock-offs of Soviet-era equipment, which fits the budget of Ethiopia at the moment. Until they can either afford to pay more or find another source for their systems, the Ethiopians claimed they had little choice but to buy from North Korea.
Assuming this report is the complete truth — an assumption one makes with the Times at one’s peril — the Bush administration will have some explaining to do to its partners in the Korean crisis. The issue appears to have started at the State Department, which apparently pushed for the sale on behalf of its Ethiopian contacts. John Bolton scolded State for allowing this shipment, and warned against “clientitis” at Foggy Bottom, the tendency to sympathize too much with the clients in other nations at the expense of American policy.
Other nations will rightly ask where to draw the lines on these sanctions. If the trade had come as part of an overall solution to the Korean crisis, then that might have made it tolerable. In January, though, Kim Jong-Il was still dragging his heels about coming to the table. Even now, the North Koreans refuse to budge until we unfreeze the $25 million in funds that relate to North Korea’s counterfeiting operation. It does not appear that the sale to Ethiopia pushed Pyongyang in any appreciable direction towards resolving the nuclear standoff.
If we break the sanctions we ourselves demanded for our own strategic purposes, then we leave the door open to other nations to do the same for their own purposes. It’s hard to complain about other nations breaking the rather weak sanctions when we arrange for violations ourselves. The Ethiopian sale is a mistake, as John Bolton said, that should not be repeated, and should be repudiated.