WASHINGTON -- 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 North Korea, in what appears to be a violation of the restrictions, according to senior U.S. officials.
The United States allowed the arms delivery to go through in January in part because Ethiopian troops were in the midst of a military offensive against Islamic militias inside Somalia, a campaign that aided the U.S. policy of combating religious extremists in the Horn of Africa.
U.S. officials said that they were still encouraging Ethiopia to wean itself from its long-standing 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.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, as the administration has made counterterrorism its top foreign policy concern, the White House has sometimes shown a willingness to tolerate misconduct by allies that it might otherwise criticize, such as human rights violations in Central Asia and anti-democratic crackdowns in some Arab nations.
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, the Spanish military 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-Qaida 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.
U.S. officials from a number of agencies described details of the episode on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal Bush administration deliberations.
Officials said they first learned that Ethiopia planned to receive a delivery of military cargo from North Korea when the country's government alerted the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, after the adoption Oct. 14 of the Security Council measure imposing sanctions.
"The Ethiopians came back to us and said, 'Look, we know we need to transition to different customers, but we just can't do that overnight,'" said one U.S. official, who added that the issue had been handled properly.
The exact value of the shipment is unclear, but Ethiopia purchased $20 million worth of arms from North Korea in 2001, according to U.S. estimates, a general pattern that officials said had continued.
After a brief debate in Washington, the decision was made not to block the arms deal and to press Ethiopia not to make future purchases.
John R. Bolton, who helped to push the resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea through the Security Council in October, before stepping down as U.N. ambassador, said that the Ethiopians had long known that Washington was concerned about their arms purchases from North Korea and that the Bush administration should not have tolerated the January shipment.
"We should have gone to the Ethiopians and said they should send it back," said Bolton, who said he was unaware of the deal before being contacted for this article. "I know they have been helpful in Somalia, but there is a nuclear weapons program in North Korea that is unhelpful for everybody worldwide."