The Obama administration is ignoring China’s transfer of mobile nuclear missile launchers to North Korea as Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday applauded China for announcing new export controls on Pyongyang’s arms programs.
Six Chinese transporter-erector launchers (TELs) were sold to North Korea in 2011 and were first revealed carrying new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) during a Pyongyang military parade in April 2012.
The launchers are now part of North Korea’s newest and most-lethal road-mobile nuclear KN-08 missiles, which are capable of hitting parts of the western United States.
In addition to United Nations sanctions against North Korea, the missile launcher transfers violated the 2000 Iran, North Korea, Syria Nonproliferation Act passed by Congress requiring sanctions to be imposed on states that supply goods restricted for export under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to Iran, North Korea, or Syria. The MTCR prohibition covers missile delivery systems.
Rick Fisher, a specialist on China’s military forces, said both the U.S. and Japanese governments have known about the Chinese government’s role in supplying the KN-08 missile launchers to North Korea for years.
"Yet, nearly two years after the transfer of these TELs, the administration has not issued one sanction against a Chinese company or made one public protest to China," said Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
A State Department official told reporters that Kerry met on Thursday in New York with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The two officials discussed China’s announcement this week that it has adopted new export controls designed to curb North Korea’s nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programs.
"The secretary acknowledged the importance of the step China has recently taken to issue an export control list, and they discussed both the significance of that particular step symbolically and practically as well as other steps that are within the power of China and others to take that would push in the same direction," the senior official said of the breakfast meeting in New York between Kerry and Wang.
The official said Kerry and Wang did not discuss details of the implementation of the new controls. However, "there was an exchange between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Wang on additional steps that potentially China could take," the official said, without providing details.
A State Department spokeswoman had no immediate comment when asked whether Kerry discussed the ICBM launcher transfers and why no action has been taken to punish China for the sales.
A spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which oversees the State Department, had no immediate comment. A House Foreign Affairs Committee spokesman did not respond to an email request for comment.
China’s Ministry of Commerce on Tuesday issued a list of dual-use, civilian-military items now banned for export to North Korea amid concerns the items could assist North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs.
It includes equipment and technology that could be used to make missiles and nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
The 236-page list does not include vehicles that could be used with mobile missiles.
The release of the list was viewed by many analysts as an indication Beijing is giving in to international pressure to abide by U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea for its recent nuclear and missile tests.
China for decades has been a major supplier of technology and military-related goods for North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, U.S. intelligence officials have said.
The ICBM launcher transfer is viewed as one of the most militarily significant arms proliferation activities in recent years, comparable to China’s supplying Pakistan with nuclear weapons designs and technology in the 1980s.
Pentagon officials said the sudden emergence of the KN-08 missile atop the Chinese launchers led to a major Joint Staff reassessment of missile threats to the United States that was carried out earlier this year.
That assessment in turn prompted a major shift in U.S. strategic defenses. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in March that the Pentagon would add 14 long-range missile defense interceptors to the missile defense base in Fort Greely, Alaska. The new interceptors are being added in direct response to the North Korean mobile ICBM threat, officials said.
A U.N. panel of experts who examined North Korean sanctions implementation revealed in a June report that Chinese officials had admitted to providing the six off-road vehicles that Beijing asserted were illegally converted to ICBM launchers.
U.S. officials discounted the Chinese explanation and asserted that China has a long-time covert relationship with North Korea in supplying missile technology going back three decades.
A CIA-drafted report to Congress on arms proliferation published in February said North Korea continues to procure missile-related goods from foreign sources. China also is a major arms proliferator and continues to engage in weapons of mass destruction-related activities, including missile transfers to "states of concern," the CIA report said.
The U.N. report said a panel of experts "considers it most likely that [North Korea] deliberately breached the end-user guarantee that it officially provided to [China's] Wuhan and converted the WS51200 trucks into transporter-erector launchers." The report was dated June 11.
China told the world body that the missile launchers were sold as "lumber transporters" despite being manufactured by China's Hubei Sanjiang Space Wanshan Special Vehicle Co.
The U.N. analysis stated that the launchers’ "fronts and sides, the fenders, the exhaust systems, fuel tanks and tires of the vehicles seen on parade exactly matched those of the WS51200 series advertised by Wanshan."
The report also said the vehicles were built by the Ninth Academy of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp., the Chinese military's primary manufacturer of mobile-missiles.
Fisher said the new Chinese list of controlled exports to North Korea was alarming, considering that the weapons of mass destruction products on it are only now being restricted.
The list of goods is "all you need to get into the nuclear and biological weapons business," he said.
"It’s all well and good for Secretary Kerry to acknowledge the ‘symbolic and practical’ value of China's new list of banned items for sale to North Korea, but it has to be said: This list is 24 years too late," Fisher told the Washington Free Beacon.
Fisher said the list makes no mention of vehicles that can carry or transport nuclear weapons, including the KN-08 missile launchers transferred from China to North Korea in late 2011.
"North Korea is making nuclear weapons, the missiles to carry these nuclear weapons and is believed to have one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical and perhaps biological weapons," he said.
"North Korea has likely obtained all the items on China's list that it needs to make nuclear armed missiles, so China has in effect achieved its goal."
Fisher said through both direct and indirect means in the past 20 years China has enabled North Korea to become a direct nuclear missile threat to the United States.
"Beijing expects this will vastly increase its leverage over Washington and Tokyo, not to mention Seoul," he said.
Vice Adm. James D. Syring, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, said North Korea’s KN-08 missiles are one reason the United States is shifting its focus from European missile defenses to protection of the continental United States.
According to slides used by the admiral during a speech to a missile defense conference in Alabama last month, U.S. missile defenses are being reoriented due to "the emergence of North Korean road mobile ICBM[s]."
Iran also will have the capability of flight-testing a long-range missile in two years, he said, noting the plan to deploy 14 additional Ground-Based Interceptors in Alaska.
"We are taking these steps to stay ahead of the challenge posed by Iran and North Korea’s development of longer-range ballistic missile capabilities," Syring noted in one of the slides.