James ActonThe Yinhe Incident

I am off tomorrow for a conference in South Korea organized by the Korean National Defence University. I hope to keep posting while I’m there.

In the meantime here is some Friday afternoon reading for you. On Monday I commented on the difficulties of using inspections to uncover clandestine activities absent good intelligence to guide the search, as illustrated by the Kumchang-ri debacle. (Incidentally, a couple of you pointed out that I had overstated the US’ right to conduct inspections at undeclared sites in North Korea as they must be by mutual consent—but that does not alter my conclusions about the problems of using them).

A former alum of this blog suggested I google “Yinhe” for another example. I hadn’t heard about this incident before but it illustrates the general point nicely. Here’s an article by Patrick Tyler from the NYT in 1993:


A Chinese freighter that had been suspected by American intelligence of carrying poison gas ingredients to Iran is carrying no such cargo and will be allowed to go on its way, United States, Chinese and Saudi officials say.

After an inspection at the Saudi port of Damman, certification that the ship was not carrying any chemical weapons cargo was signed Saturday by representatives of all three governments, including an American technical adviser to the Saudis who was not identified.

China denounced “self-styled world cop” behavior by the United States and demanded compensation for what it said was the disruption by United States warships and aircraft of its ocean commerce.

American officials here and in Washington said there would be “no apology” because the United States had acted in good faith on intelligence from a number of sources, all of which proved to be wrong. The United States had said the ship, the Yinhe, had sailed from a Chinese port with an illicit cargo of thiodiglycol, a mustard gas base, and thionyl chloride, used in nerve gas.

American officials would not elaborate on their assertion that they had acted on faulty intelligence. But the incident is an embarrassment to the Clinton Administration, which has been engaged in a war of words with Beijing over human rights, arms sales and a hefty trade imbalance.

The incident also raised questions about how a treaty to control the spread of chemical weapons would be enforced with inspections.

“The chemical weapons convention will not become effective until 1995, and its verification mechanism is yet to be established,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. “If such behavior of self-styled world cop is to be condoned, can there still be justice, sovereign equality and normal state-to-state relations in this world?”

In a dispatch from Saudi Arabia, the New China News Agency said the chief Chinese representative on the inspection team, Sha Zukang, had released the inspection report, which said that “the complete inspection of all the containers aboard the Yinhe showed conclusively” that the chemicals “were not among the ship’s cargo.”

The report also said, “The U.S. Government undertakes to inform the governments of the countries which the Chinese ship Yinhe had been scheduled to call of the results of this inspection and to seek to insure a smooth entry of the ship into the ports concerned to unload its cargo.”

Officials in Washington were said to be discussing whether the United States now had an obligation to pay compensation for the cost of diverting the ship to Saudi Arabia and flying inspection teams to the Persian Gulf port for 10 days of cracking open cargo containers to inspect their contents.

In Washington, the State Department spokesman, Michael McCurry, said late Saturday that the United States felt it had acted “responsibly” and thanked China for the “open” and forthright” way it had submitted the ship for an inspection. Suspicions of a ‘Sting’

The embarrassing conclusion to the incident left United States officials wondering what had misfired after they said they had received intelligence so reliable about the contents of two dozen of the 782 containers on the cargo ship that American officials in late July began demanding through private diplomatic channels that China turn the ship around.

Some American officials said the incident raised questions of whether China had undertaken a “sting” operation to embarrass Washington.

One indication that China had wanted a showdown, officials said, was that China first made the incident public, saying on Aug. 8 that its cargo vessel approaching the Persian Gulf was under intrusive surveillance by American warships.

Another indication, they said, was in the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement this weekend, which said that on Aug. 4, China “put forth a positive proposal for a third-party inspection” of the Yinhe, but that the United States initially refused.

“The Yinhe was compelled to stay adrift on the high sea for more than 20 days with its crew suffering from a shortage of fresh water,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

Anyone wanting more information on future technological developments to help detect clandestine nuclear activity might want to check out a excellent recent article by Vitaly Fedchenko over at Verification.


  1. nuc free korea (History)

    James, be sure to give a good run down of the conference in Seoul. Some of us follow closely what happens on the Korean Peninsula. Watch out for the Kimch’i and soju.

  2. CR (History)

    Did the US end up compensating the ship for its delays? If not, seems a poor decision. If so, I would say no harm, no foul (though I also wouldn’t want to to be the one tasked with making that argument at the UN…)

  3. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    In the overall scheme of things, this is pretty small potatoes.

    I hate to be the party pooper on this blog… but I do have some concerns about how the global economic crisis might have a bearing on… Arms Control.

    The Bush Administration wasted no time (and was unsparing in the use of American credibility and goodwill) to achieve their geopolitical aims.

    Like it or not, many of the international institutions we have relied on for stability for the better part of a half century have been gutted: the NPT, bilateral deals with USSR/Russia, etc.

    At the same time, international economic and trade institutions have also been emasculated, and with it, the economic stake that all countries have in pursuing peace and stability as opposed to being an outcast.

    In other words, the economic legs of post war peace and prosperity from global trade and integration into the world economy —- which also underpins the Functionalist model of European Integration (economic connectedness and dependency = lower risk for war) is now unwinding.

    For those who are unfamiliar, see this IMF Report: http://greenewable.wordpress.com/2008/10/26/imf-global-financial-stability-report-october-08/

    What concerns me is that one of the countries that is most near crisis point (in terms of trade, credits, resource depletion, etc.) is Pakistan.

    It is probably imprudent of me to express in public my worst fears, but a cool, hard nosed analysis of Pakistan’s security situation (severe pressures on economy, resources, 100% certainty of being defeated by India the longer they wait, etc.) would lead me to the conclusion that an outbreak of war, read all out nuclear war, is highly probable before the economic crisis is over, or in specific terms, within the next 5 years.

    Let’s hope I am remembered for being wrong.