I recently posted on a report by the Congressional Research Service on China's relationship to the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in several nations around the globe including Iran, Pakistan and North Korea. In this posting, I'll be looking at China's connection to North Korea (DPRK), an issue that is of particular interest in light of North Korea's latest foray into the nuclear age. It is China's relationship with North Korea that is of particular interest because of its historical connection to the country during the Korean War.
1.) Non-nuclear Proliferation
It appears that the People's Republic of China (PRC) may have provided assistance to North Korea's space/satellite program as early as 1998 - 1999, however, confirmation of the connection with North Korea's medium range ballistic missile program was not possible even with the launching of the first Taepo Dong-1 missile in August 1998. Nonetheless, China-based entities sold specialty steel, gyroscopes, accelerometers and precision grinding equipment to North Korea along with other missile-related equipment in 1999.
North Korea unsuccessfully attempted to launch a Taepo Dong-2 missile in April 2012, however, shortly thereafter, what appeared to be an ICBM was spotted on a 16-wheeled transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) that originated from China as shown in this picture:
The TEL was produced by a company that is part of the state-owned aerospace defense industry which produces materiel for China's People's Liberation Army. A total of four of these TELs were shipped from Shanghai to North Korea in August 2011.
A United Nations panel has found that Chinese entities have been responsible for violating sanctions that were put in place in 2006 (United Nations Resolution 1695). This resolution required all signatories to prevent the transfer of missile and missile-related goods and technologies to North Korea as stated here:
"The United Nations Security Council today condemned the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s recent test-firing of a series of missiles, and demanded that the North-East Asian country suspend all ballistic missile related activity and reinstate its moratorium on missile launches.
Acting “under its special responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”, the Council unanimously adopted resolution 1695 (2006), by the terms of which it also required all Member States to prevent the transfer of missile and missile-related items, materials, goods and technology to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s missile or weapons of mass destruction programmes, as well as procurement of such items and technology from that country. It also addressed the transfer of financial resources in relation to those programmes.
China welcomed the resolution and China's U.N. representative stated that "China had always been committed to maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula....". He also urged the signatories to "...continue the diplomatic endeavours for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the normalization of relations between the countries concerned.""
Not surprisingly, North Korea rejected the resolution within forty-five minutes of its adoption.
2.) Nuclear Proliferation
As far back as October 2002, North Korea admitted to Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that they had a secret program to enrich uranium and, by 2004, United States intelligence estimated that North Korea had a least 8 nuclear weapons. At that time, it was questioned whether China's nuclear technology indirectly contributed to North Korea's nuclear program through Pakistan since China was the main supplier to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. Mr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, head of Pakistan's Khan Research Laboratories, disclosed that he had transferred designs for uranium enrichment centrifuges to China and it was later confirmed that Khan sold Libya a nuclear bomb design that he had received from China, one that could be delivered on a missile. In 2003, China granted overflight rights to several Iranian cargo planes that reportedly picked up wooden crates from North Korea that may have contained cruise missiles.
After North Korea's second nuclear test in 2009, the United Arab Emirates seized a ship that was transporting North Korean weapons to Iran after it had docked at two of China's major port cities where the shipment was transferred to another cargo ship.
In 2011, it was found that Iran and North Korea traded illicit missile technology that was shipped through China. In May 2012, a Chinese-owned ship was stopped by South Korea; the shipment seized contained graphite cylinders that could be used in a missile program. The cylinders were destined for Syria. In late 2012, North Korea also agreed to supply Egypt with parts for Scud missiles that were shipped by air cargo through China. At the same time, Chinese missile technicians were sent to Egypt to work with North Korean technicians.
Thus far, the evidence that China has directly supplied North Korea with nuclear weapons technology is not indisputable, but their complicity in the transportation of weapons and technology appears quite solid.
3.) Military Relationship between the DPRK and China’s PLA
Since the war of the early 1950s, the relationship between China and North Korea and the United States and its allies has been very complex. China's People's Liberation Army would appear to have inside information about North Korea's missile and nuclear technology programs and it is unclear how much of this information the PLA is willing to share with the United States. It is known that China and North Korea had high-level contact just before the missile tests of both 1998 and 2006. The PLA refers to North Korea as a "buffer", keeping the United States and Republic of Korea forces below the 38th parallel, providing a zone of protection for China. In fact, in July 2010, the PLA opposed the United States - Republic of Korea joint maritime exercises being held in the Yellow Sea, perhaps a bit too close for comfort.
China's relationship with North Korea is, at the very least, a complicating factor in diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula. Many experts question whether China seeks North Korea's denuclearization with as much urgency as most of the rest of the world. China appears to be most interested in a stable North Korea and shows a strong preference for maintaining the "status quo". North Korea depends on China for 80 percent dependent of its energy and economic activity with North Korea importing 70 to 80 percent of its foreign goods from China. China has shown a preference for using positive inducements to pressure North Korea, at odds with the United States and its allies that prefer the use of sanctions to pressure the DPRK. Apparently, neither approach works.
It is apparent that, while North Korea itself may not necessarily be a threat to world security, transfers of China's technology by North Korea to nations including Iran, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen are cause for concern. International relations in the region are extremely complex, largely due to the impact of the Korean War. Diplomacy in the Far East as a whole is also complicated by the United States' relationship with Taiwan and the erosion of China's long-standing claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. This issue came to a head in the mid-1990s when China threatened Taiwan with missile exercises in South China Sea, necessitating the dispatching of U.S. aircraft carriers.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave....