As the UN launches an investigation into the possibility that China broke international sanctions against North Korea by providing it with banned technology, the global community should think again about the role Beijing has played as a negotiator in disarmament talks with Pyongyang over the years.
Beijing denies it provided North Korea with the 16-wheel transporter- erector- launcher (TEL) vehicle, pictured at a military parade on April 15, that made Beijing, rather than Pyongyang, the main focus of the international community this week. Providing a TEL — a vehicle used to transport and launch ballistic missiles — to North Korea would be in breach of UN Security Council Resolution 1874, adopted in 2009, which prohibits the supply to North Korea of “any arms or related materiel, or providing financial transactions, technical training, services or assistance related to such arms.”
Military experts who analyzed the images claim the TEL seen at the parade bore strikingly similar characteristics to a TEL design by the 9th Academy of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC).
North Korea probably does not have the industrial capability to design such a vehicle on its own. After all, far more advanced countries, including Taiwan, have struggled for years to develop similar systems, and their efforts have often resulted in failure.
Aside from CASIC directly providing North Korea with the TEL, other possible explanations include design theft by Pyongyang, assistance by Chinese technicians or the acquisition of the vehicle under the pretext of non-military use. Pyongyang could also have obtained the TEL via a third country, perhaps Iran or Pakistan, which both have close ties to the Chinese military.
Regardless, Beijing has a lot of explaining to do and we can only hope that UN investigators will be able to do their work despite the expected pressure they will receive not to incriminate China.
This incident did not happen in a vacuum, but rather it is the logical continuation of an environment that has made it possible for Pyongyang to defy the international community as it forges ahead with its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. It is highly unlikely that isolated North Korea could have gone this far without some form of assistance, or at least diplomatic cover. Only one country has been in a position to do so: China.
While, on the surface, Beijing has played a crucial role in facilitating the six-party talks on the North Korean arms program, it has also benefited substantially from the almost perpetual state of crisis that has descended upon the matter. Not only has China been able to insert itself as an indispensable regional power in negotiations, it has also managed to extract various concessions — possibly on Taiwan, among others — in return for its participation, and the spigot of benefits will not be turned off as long as the North Korea crisis remains.
Another advantage to the North Korean question remaining unresolved is that it keeps US, South Korean and Japanese forces bogged down over the Korean Peninsula. Should that issue disappear, the Pacific trio would suddenly find itself with too many resources, with the possibility that those would be redirected to meeting the China challenge, or perhaps even bolstering their ties with Taiwan.
Mutatis mutandis, North Korea could be to China what Vietnam was to the Soviet Union as a proxy to keep its principal strategic adversary distracted.
The North Korea problem probably will not disappear as long as Pyongyang’s nuclear antics serve Beijing’s strategic purposes.
While Beijing does not want to see war on the Korean Peninsula, it also does not want the conflict to be resolved once and for all. Peace, in this case, is simply inconvenient.
The US intelligence community’s annual threat assessment for this year certainly cannot be faulted for having a narrow focus or Pollyanna perspective. From a rising China, Russian aggression and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to climate change, future pandemics and the growing reach of international organized crime, US intelligence analysis is as comprehensive as it is worrying. Inaugurated two decades ago as a gesture of transparency and to inform the public and the US Congress, the annual threat assessment offers the intelligence agencies’ top-line conclusions about the country’s leading national-security threats — although always in ways that do not compromise “sources and methods.”
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