Japanese government sources have confirmed that a Chinese company exported four large vehicles capable of transporting and launching ballistic missiles to North Korea last August, which would be a violation of a United Nations Security Council resolution.
While the Security Council mandate prohibits the sale of major weapons systems to Pyongyang, the official Chinese government position continues to be that it has never broken such a resolution.
Because the United States, Japan and South Korea need Chinese pressure on North Korea to prevent it testing a nuclear weapon for the third time, the three governments have not pressed Beijing on the issue, sources said.
On the urging of the United States, the three governments also decided not to publicize the shipment of the vehicles to avoid publicly embarrassing China.
The Japanese government obtained a document last October that recorded the export of the vehicles from China to North Korea.
The four vehicles believed to have been exported were likely the same ones that were prominently displayed by North Korea at a military parade in April commemorating the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder.
According to several Japanese government sources, the four vehicles were transported aboard the 1,999-ton Harmony Wish, a cargo ship registered with Cambodia.
Spy satellites of Japan, the United States and South Korea have confirmed the ship left Shanghai on Aug. 1, 2011, and arrived at Nampho in western North Korea on Aug. 4.
On Oct. 3, the Harmony Wish anchored in Osaka Port. At that time, officials of the 5th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters, based in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, conducted an on-board inspection and discovered the detailed document of the export of the vehicles that was issued by the exporting agent in Shanghai. A report was passed on to the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office via Japan Coast Guard headquarters.
According to the document, four large WS-51200 transport vehicles with a total length of 21 meters were transported after completion in May 2011 by a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., which is affiliated with the Chinese military.
The Chinese military normally uses the WS series of off-road vehicles to transport ballistic missiles. The 51200 model is believed to be a modified version of the 12-wheeler 2900 model. The 51200 was turned into an 16-wheeler and was likely developed to transport the Dongfeng 31 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which has a range of about 8,000 kilometers.
Wuhan Sanjiang Import and Export Co. is listed as the shipper of the vehicles. Wuhan Sanjiang is believed to be affiliated with China Aerospace Science and Technology.
While a North Korean trading company was listed as the recipient, the company does not exist in files on weapons export companies held by the Japanese government, leading officials to believe it was a paper company created to get around economic sanctions.
Japan passed on the intelligence it gathered from the Cambodian ship to the United States and South Korea via the Foreign Ministry.
At the April 15 military parade held in Pyongyang, eight 16-wheeler transport vehicles carried what appeared to be ICBMs. Because North Korea does not have the technology to develop such vehicles on its own and because the vehicles were very similar to the WS-51200, officials of Japan, the United States and South Korea decided that the four vehicles shipped from China were among the eight.
The three nations concluded the import of the four vehicles was a violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, which bans the export to North Korea of all weapons and related materials except small arms and light weapons. The resolution was adopted in response to Pyongyang's second nuclear test in 2009.
U.S. officials informally passed on such information to their Chinese counterparts in April.
Sources said while Chinese officials admitted for the first time to the export of the vehicles they also said the exports were intended for civilian use to mainly transport large pieces of lumber.
However, because there are no Chinese trade records of the export of the four vehicles, some intelligence sources said Chinese officials may have used that explanation about civilian use to fend off criticism, since the WS series of off-road vehicles were developed with the capability of being able to raise ballistic missiles into launch position.
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