What Did China Know?

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What Did China Know?

China is finding that when it comes to being friends with North Korea, guilt by association is bound to happen.

China has good reasons for supporting North Korea: Pyongyang’s implosion would be an almighty headache, with potentially millions of half-starved refugees pouring across the border looking for Beijing to solve their problems. China’s policy, understandably, is to keep the North’s humanitarian horrors on the far side of the Yalu River.

Beijing therefore turns a blind eye to the cross-border black-market activities that keep the North Korean economy on life support, despite their drain on China’s own resources. It plays its tired part in boosting the North Korean leader’s status, doing what it can to help stave off regime collapse by hosting the Kims in Beijing and offering quotable assurances of solidarity. It also jumps, with impressive patience, through the diplomatic hoops of having constantly to fight North Korea’s losing corner at the United Nations and other international forums.

But when it comes to last week’s revelation that China may be supplying North Korea with technology in contravention of U.N. sanctions, the rationale is much less obvious. It was reported by Jane’s Defence Weekly that a new transporter erector launcher (TEL) system debuted by North Korea at a recent military parade looked suspiciously like a known Chinese system. Following the report, the U.S. government, among others, admitted that they, too, had noticed the similarity. The U.N. Security Council committee whose job it is to monitor these sanctions – a job, some have noted, that it doesn’t seem terribly good at – is reportedly investigating.

China denies busting the sanctions, but analysts sound convinced that North Korea’s new TEL is Chinese, or at least of Chinese design. Supplying North Korea with road-mobile missile technology isn’t about to make the country less prone to collapse. So why would China do it?

First, let’s consider the costs. China’s relations with South Korea are already strained, with maritime disputes having already placed the two countries at loggerheads. Proof that China was helping Pyongyang with military systems that could really hurt the South would be disastrous for Beijing’s relations with Seoul.

Secondly, giving TELs to North Korea is the kind of act that feeds into the caricature of a crafty China that openly preaches harmony while quietly sowing mischief. Whatever the truth behind the TEL story, China has an image problem when it comes to this sort of thing (the arms shipment to Robert Mugabe in the midst of Zimbabwe’s bloody political crisis in 2008 also springs to mind).

So, there are several possible explanations. Perhaps China’s leaders had no idea that it was happening. Mid-level officials and companies can’t always be trusted to stick to the Party line, and often that’s tolerated as a fact of life in a vast country. In this case, the firm believed to have sold a chassis for the launcher – perhaps to a front company – denies that it has trade links with North Korea. Still, it becomes a problem when the miscalculations of arms company executives or local military commanders become a source of very public embarrassment to the central government.

Alternatively, Pyongyang’s TEL with Chinese characteristics might not be Chinese at all.

Confirmation of the weapon system’s origin may emerge once the United Nations has had time to pore over the pictures and make its inquiries. But the episode will at the very least have reminded China’s leaders that it’s all too easy to be guilty by association when you have associates of North Korea’s calibre.