Did Obama Score a Victory at Sea vs. North Korea?

At this moment, the Kang Nam, a tramp freighter, looks as if it is heading back to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It left the North Korean port of Nampo on June 17 and, after hugging the Chinese coast, made it as far south as the waters off Vietnam. At the end of last month, the rusting ship made a U-turn on the high seas and set a course for China. According to most reports, the North Korean freighter was on its way to Burma. This saga is not over, but it's clear the Kang Nam will not, at least on this voyage, be delivering its cargo.

And what would that cargo be?  Some speculate the rust bucket is carrying missiles like the seven Scuds Pyongyang tested on July 4.  Others believe the Kang Nam is transporting only automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Any shipment of weapons, even handguns, would be a violation of Security Council Resolution 1874, unanimously adopted on June 12.  The United States wants to make sure that any illicit material stays on board and has had destroyers, submarines, aircraft, and satellites keep watch on the rust bucket as it meandered in Asian waters.

Even by North Korean standards, the Kang Nam's voyage is strange. So what happened? David Ignatius reports he heard about the reversal of the vessel's course from a White House official, who called in the early hours of the morning while the Washington Post columnist was in Moscow. The official, whom Ignatius did not name, said Washington had conducted "a behind-the-scenes pressure campaign," convincing nations along the route to not allow the Kang Nam to dock.

And the American efforts were also directed at the Rangoon regime. "The Burmese said no, we don't want it," the official told Ignatius. And they said that on an open line to the North Koreans so that Washington would hear it. So the Obama administration is claiming credit for the ship's mid-course reversal. The White House official said the president had scored a "victory." As Ignatius's source noted, "Obama has an open hand, but a firm handshake."

And a cautious attitude. Despite concerns that the Kang Nam was carrying contraband, administration officials were worried the voyage was staged, that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was trying to create a confrontation over an ordinary cargo. To avoid a humiliating incident, the White House decided to avoid a search on the high seas. There is nothing inherently wrong about approaching the North Koreans warily -- they are especially cunning after all -- but not boarding the Kang Nam cannot be called a "victory."