Associated Press in Tokyo
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 13 June 2012 07.15 EDT
China has denied Japanese media reports that vehicles capable of transporting and launching missiles were exported to North Korea by a Chinese company in possible violation of United Nations sanctions.
According to the reports, four of the vehicles were shipped from Shanghai to North Korea last August on board the Harmony Wish, a Cambodian-flagged cargo vessel. Japanese authorities tracked the ship by satellite and searched it after it had delivered its cargo, when it transited through Japan the following month, the reports said.
Such vehicles, called TELs – for transporter, erector, launcher – became the focus of international attention when North Korea displayed what looked like several of them during a military parade in its capital, Pyongyang, in April.
They are a concern because they could give North Korea the ability to transport long-range missiles around its territory, making them harder to locate and destroy.
Japan's top government spokesman declined to confirm the reports on Wednesday. But he said that if necessary, Japan would work with the international community to determine if UN regulations were violated.
In Beijing, Liu Weimin, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry, said his country has not violated any restrictions.
"Chinese companies did not violate UN and Chinese laws," he said, calling the reports inaccurate. He did not specifically confirm or deny the vehicles were sold, but said China was opposed to proliferation and was complying with UN laws and regulations.
Although no suspicious vehicles were on board the ship when it was searched in Japan, authorities found documents detailing the cargo it had unloaded in North Korea, which included the vehicles, according to Japanese newspaper the Asahi. It cited multiple but unnamed government sources.
The paper said the exported vehicles were believed to have been those used in a military parade held shortly after a North Korea rocket launch that was widely condemned as an attempt to develop its long-range missile technology. The rocket, which North Korea claimed carried a satellite, failed soon after liftoff.
NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, and other media later carried similar reports, also citing unnamed government sources.
The Asahi said the evidence was shared with South Korea and the US, but claimed Washington requested it not be made public.
Immediately after the parade, private experts said the vehicles probably came from China, citing similarities to Chinese design patterns in the windscreen, the windscreen wiper configuration, the door and handle, the grill, the front bumper lighting configurations, and the cabin steps.
Despite the latest reports, experts say pinning a sanctions-busting charge on Beijing would be difficult because it would be hard to prove that Beijing knowingly approved the exports for military purposes.
With different modifications, the vehicle can also be used in commercial fields. The Asahi report said China claims the vehicles were to be used to carry lumber.
The UN security council imposed sanctions against North Korea after its first nuclear test in 2006, stepping them up after a second test in 2009 to try to derail the country's rogue nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes. The sanctions restrict exports of weapons or technology that could be used to boost those programmes.