When North Korea held an elaborate parade to show off its military might, it inadvertently provided further damning evidence against its only ally.
Images of the April 15 parade in Pyongyang, held to commemorate the centennial of the birth of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, featured large 16-wheeler transport vehicles carrying ballistic missiles.
The vehicles were believed to have come from China, the same ones mentioned in a shipping report obtained by the Japanese government.
Japan, the United States and South Korea had solid evidence to prove that China, despite its repeated denials, had violated a U.N. Security Council resolution banning weapons exports to North Korea.
But the three countries decided not to pursue the matter in the Security Council, underscoring the complexities in international horse trading.
"That was not a good time to force China into a corner," one Japanese government source said.
The chief concern among the three nations was to prevent a third nuclear test by North Korea and alleviate tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and they needed Beijing’s help on that matter.
Japan had gone out of its way to prove that China was not adhering to the U.N. Security Council resolution, which prohibits the export of all weapons and related material to North Korea except for small arms and light weapons.
The Japanese government solidified its case when it obtained a document showing that a Chinese company had exported four large vehicles--capable of transporting and launching ballistic missiles—to North Korea.
The document was obtained through a search of the cargo ship Harmony Wish, which has long been suspected of having illicit ties to North Korea.
According to Japanese government sources, although the Harmony Wish is registered in Cambodia, almost all its crew members are Chinese. Security experts suspect that Cambodian-registered ships operated mainly by Chinese crews have been used to provide underground support to such nations as North Korea, Myanmar and Laos.
Over the past four years, the Harmony Wish has made close to 10 calls at such North Korean ports as Chongjin, Wonsan and Nampho.
Japanese government officials got their chance to search the Harmony Wish when it docked at Osaka Port on Oct. 3, 2011.
After gaining the consent of the ship captain, officials of the 5th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters, based in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, conducted an on-board inspection.
Although no suspicious cargo was found, officials did discover a detailed export document showing that four large vehicles, developed for the Chinese military to transport ballistic missiles, had been shipped from Shanghai to Nampho in August 2011.
China has shipped materials in the past to North Korea that could become part of weapon development programs, including hydrazine and kerosene, which can be used as rocket propulsion fuel, and lead glass that is used in nuclear facilities.
Beijing brushed aside criticism from the international community on those occasions by explaining that the materials also had civilian uses.
A panel of experts from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Japan and South Korea, was set up to ensure adherence to the provisions of the Security Council resolution against weapons exports to North Korea.
The panel has indicated a number of times that Chinese ports were being used as transit points for the export of weapons to North Korea.
But Chinese experts denied such allegations, saying they lacked scientific basis and depended excessively on media reports. Chinese representatives on the panel have on most occasions refused to allow the panel's reports to be publicized. They have even refused to sign off on some of the reports.
The WS-51200 off-road vehicle that was transported to North Korea was developed specifically to allow it to be equipped with a device that raises ballistic missiles in preparation for launches.
China faced possible international criticism and demands for an explanation because the exported item was related to ballistic missiles that are obvious threats to neighboring nations.
But nothing was made of the vehicle exports until they were seen in the April 15 military parade in Pyongyang.
According to Japanese sources, officials of the United States, which had received information from Japan about the cargo shipment, informally sounded out their Chinese counterparts about the exports.
Chinese officials acknowledged the export of the vehicles, but they again explained that they were meant for civilian use.
Although Japan, the United States and South Korea could have taken the matter to the Security Council, concerns about a possible North Korean nuclear test took precedence.
One Chinese official reportedly told a Japanese counterpart, "You probably do not realize the extent of the efforts we have been making (to prevent a nuclear test)."
One event that greatly influenced the issue was an April 23 meeting in Beijing between Chinese President Hu Jintao and Kim Yong Il, head of the International Department of the Workers' Party of Korea.
One week earlier, on April 16, the Security Council unanimously adopted a president's statement in response to North Korea’s launch of a long-range ballistic missile. The statement warned Pyongyang that the Security Council would take appropriate measures if it conducted another missile launch or a nuclear test.
North Korea, clearly surprised that China accepted the hard-line stance, dispatched Kim to Beijing to meet with Hu.
Chinese officials were also surprised by the sudden visit by Kim. Wang Jiarui, the head of the Communist Party's International Department who was on a trip abroad, was instructed to change plans and return to Beijing.
In his meeting with Kim, Hu said North Korea's actions had strengthened the defensive posture of Japan, the United States and South Korea, which “affected China's national security."
Hu added that if North Korea went ahead with another nuclear test, it would "produce a decisive effect on relations between China and North Korea" and possibly force Beijing to rethink its assistance and economic cooperation projects with Pyongyang.
For his part, Kim issued a warning to the international community, saying, "If an inappropriate response is made to the peaceful rocket launch by North Korea, we will also take the appropriate retaliatory measure."
However, Kim also said, "As long as the current situation is maintained, we will not implement a hard-line measure."
After the Hu-Kim meeting, China began taking a softer approach toward North Korea.
Japan and South Korea proposed at a meeting of the Sanctions Committee of the Security Council that about 40 North Korean companies and associations be added to a list of those subject to sanctions. But China objected, and only three companies were added in the end.
Japan, the United States and South Korea concluded that China was acting based on Kim’s proposal made during his meeting with Hu. At the same time, the three nations also determined that the possibility had decreased that North Korea would conduct its third nuclear test in the near future.
Japan has no effective diplomatic measure to use against North Korea since it has implemented all possible sanctions. The only alternative open to Japan was to go along with the decision by the United States to seek a compromise with China.
In April 2002, Japan introduced a "catch-all" regulation that limits the export of products and parts that could be used in the development of weapons of mass destruction. As part of that regulation, Japan has been able to prevent the export to North Korea of large tractor-trailers.
But Japan lost an opportunity to point out that China's transport of the vehicles to North Korea clearly denied the efforts being made by Tokyo.
Japan, the United States and South Korea also decided not to publicize the information related to the export of the vehicles to North Korea through a panel of experts set up under the Sanctions Committee.
In its latest report released in May, the panel only said that North Korea did not possess the capability to manufacture the missile transport vehicles that were used in the military parade and that an investigation will continue.
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