North Korea shipped chemical reagents to Syria, possibly via China

This is a little old now, but I haven’t seen anyone else talking about it, so I will. The U.N. has launched an investigation into an attempted shipment of chemical weapons reagents and protective suits to Syria, a close ally of Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and whose government gave safe passage to recruits on their way to Iraq to join Al Qaeda forces there.

In November 2009, Greek authorities seized a container from a Liberia-registered freighter as it headed toward Syria. Inside the container they found wooden boxes stuffed with several types of ampules believed to be made of glass, each containing liquid or powdered reagents, the sources said. These reagents are used to identify chemical substances that become airborne after the use of chemical weapons, the sources said. The reagents can be used in chemical weapons attacks and for defending against them, they added.

The Greek authorities also seized about 14,000 anti-chemical weapons suits from the vessel. The suits were the same type as those seized by South Korean authorities in September of the same year, which were determined to be designed for military use as they are extremely airtight, the sources said. Observers say North Korea tried to build up their foreign currency reserves through the export of reagents and protective suits. [Yomiuri Shimbun]

North Korea is a member in good standing of the United Nations, and was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves. It may also be worth discussing this:

The diplomatic sources pointed out the possibility that the attempted export of chemical weapons reagents was conducted through China, as in past smuggling cases involving North Korea. [....] As long as Beijing does not stop neutralizing the sanctions against Pyongyang, it will be impossible to prevent arms smuggling by North Korea, the sources said,

The U.N. resolution calls for U.N. member nations to take forcible measures to inspect North Korean cargo ships if they are suspected to be in violation of the arms embargo. But it is unclear whether China inspected North Korea’s cargo shipments strictly. According to annual reports submitted by the Sanctions Committee’s expert panel to the Security Council in 2010 and 2011, China served as a transit point in at least four of the 10 arms smuggling cases involving North Korea.

Said “possibility” must have been fairly strong for “diplomatic sources” to see the need to implicate China by name, although I don’t think anonymous leaks will be much of a political disincentive for the likes of Xi Jinping.

What a shame it would be if somehow Taiwan acquired nukes small enough to be carried on a new indigenous delivery system with an uncanny resemblance to the Tomahawk. Of course, some wouldn’t see this as a shame at all, but as a far better way to prevent a war in the Taiwan Strait than putting an American aircraft carrier battle group in the middle of that. A nuclear Taiwan might even restore enough deterrence and cross-strait stability to allow us to back away from the infamous “Three Communiques,” and give Taiwan a stronger incentive to budget more for its own conventional defense, such as against a naval blockade. After all, the Chinese are smart enough to play the proxy game with little apparent restraint, and nuking up Taiwan looks increasingly attractive as a way to ensure its defense without getting us into a war with another nuclear power. It isn’t the proliferation WMD’s that I lose sleep over, it’s the proliferation of WMD’s to psychopaths, especially when our government isn’t doing anything effective to deter that.

This has been a pretty depressing election year, and it’s probably too much to expect to have a real debate about whether the people who run China really harbor enough malice against us to facilitate these things intentionally. It might do the “realists” of the world much good if they’d spend a few minutes each day reading Global Times editorials like this one instead of the echo chamber that Foreign Policy has become. You can argue that the Global Times is only one side of a spectrum of official opinion that the Chinese government tolerates, but its viewpoint certainly seems well represented by people like Shen Dingli, and speaks much more like China’s actions than the ones you’re likely to hear on CCTV’s new English-language channel.

Below the fold, I reprint a slightly edited version of something I wrote at the late New Ledger in February of 2010.

This week, the Obama Administration finally announced the contents of a long-anticipated arms sale to Taiwan, including PAC-3 Patriot missiles that can intercept ballistic missiles that China might use to terrorize, or to destroy, Taiwanese cities.

This will be another fly under the paper over U.S.-Chinese tensions that were rising even before revelations that China used Google not only to suppress thoughtcrimes within China itself, but also to spy on Americans.    China’s targets included “major financial, defense and technology companies and research institutions,” human rights advocacy groups in Washington, and “Chinese human rights advocates in the United States, Europe and China.” Not even the U.S. Congress is off limits. In June 2008, U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf, a strong human rights advocate, accused China of hacking into his office’s computers. Google is now threatening to leave China, and the State Department issued an official protest. Contrary to predictions that U.S.-China tensions would dissolve as commercial links increased, mutual economic dependence has amplified tensions as China has evolves from Communism toward a new political model based on angry, nationalist Fascism. That model seems to be working. China’s younger generation may not love the way their government treats them, but many seem to approve of its arrogance and hostility toward foreign news media, human rights organizations, and of course, America. The ugly new mood was shocking enough to cause the New Yorker to apply the single most vulgar epithet in its lexicon: “neocon.” Things aren’t about to get better now.

For your amusement, the BBC conveys what must be the single emptiest threat of the year, so far: a threat by China to withdraw its cooperation in disarming North Korea. If you wish, you may insert your own reference to O.J.’s tireless search for the real killer here.

To understand the emptiness of China’s threat and understand how we might respond to it, let’s briefly review the record of China’s compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, passed just last June, with UNSCR 1718, which followed North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test, and with its professed desire for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula in general. China voted for both U.N. resolutions.

- Exhibit A: A recent study by the eminent economists Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard shows that China undermined UNSCR 1718 by increasing aid and trade to offset declining trade with South Korea, which eventually grew weary of feeding the North Korean nuclear beast. Language in UNSCR 1718 required those remitting funds to North Korea to “ensure” that the funds would not be used for the development of prohibited weapons.

– Exhibit B: Chinese banks have long helped North Korea launder proceeds of its illegal activity, including the counterfeiting of U.S. currency, and probably also including its international arms sales. Most infamous among these was Banco Delta Asia, but several 2005 news reports also implicated the Bank of China.

– Exhibit C: After North Korea’s May 2009 nuke test, China and Russia joined forces to weaken the initial drafts of UNSCR 1874 proposed by the United States. China managed to shield North Korea from a total ban on (mostly Chinese) weapons purchases and the authority of member states to board North Korean ships on the high seas to search for banned cargo.

Exhibit D: Months after the passage of UNSCR 1874, Chinese trade with North Korea — chiefly with companies controlled by the North Korean military — remained almost constant with 2008 levels, decreasing slightly only because oil prices had sagged in comparison to 2008’s record prices. This business-as-usual approach almost certainly disregarded provisions of UNSCR 1874 that tightened UNSCR 1718’s financial accounting requirements.

– Exhibit E: Chinese trading companies continue helping Kim Jong Il acquire luxury items, such as Italian yachts and European luxury sedans, in violation of UNSCR 1718 and 1874.

Exhibit F: By last October, Kim Jong Il had probably begun to feel the financial strain of international sanctions targeting its weapons exports and its links to the international financial system. China responded by offering Kim Jong Il a multi-billion dollar sanctions-busting aid package. The package may have been shelved — for the time being, at least — after the Obama Administration protested.

Exhibit G: A shipment of North Korean weapons to Iran, intercepted in the United Arab Emirates last June, originated in the North Korean port of Nampo and was then “transferred to a Chinese ship in the port city of Dalian, in northern China.”

Exhibit H: A shipment of North Korean weapons to Iran intercepted in Bangkok last year crossed through Chinese airspace, and the New Zealand-registered trading company that arranged the deal was registered in the name of one “Lu Zhang.”

– Exhibit I: Finally, there is China’s brutal repatriations of North Korean refugees back to the loving arms of Kim Jong Il and killing fields like Camp 12 continue undiminished and in flagrant violation of the UN Refugee Convention, which China signed. The repatriations themselves are crimes against humanity because China knows what awaits those refugees on their return. North Korean refugees claim that the hospitality of their Chinese captors includes rape, shocking them with electric cattle prods, the payment of bounties, and piercing their wrists and noses with sharp wires to string them together (they’re more cooperative that way). And for years, China hasn’t let anyone from the UNHCR anywhere near its border with North Korea to even determine the scale of the North Korean refugee problem. This sort of brutality helped Beijing to host the world’s most orderly Olympic games since at least 1936.

For China to make a credible threat to stop cooperating with UN sanctions, China would first have to start cooperating with UN sanctions.

None of this should really surprise us, of course. After all, China has long allowed North Korea to ship WMD components across its territory, may have transferred Long March missile technology to North Korea, and flashed a green light at North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006. Here, it’s important to remember that in China’s controlled academia, academics may have quasi-diplomatic authority, saying what the government allows them to say, but more bluntly than credentialed diplomats would. Now, here’s what prominent Chinese academic and North Korea specialist Shen Dingli wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review the year before that test:

The development of nuclear weapons is a sovereign right to which the D.P.R.K. is entitled. Though outsiders may feel that North Korea should not go nuclear, Pyongyang is not convinced that it should voluntarily put a halt to its program. Besides, as long as the D.P.R.K. refrains from exporting its nuclear technology, it should be able to avoid a military confrontation. In order to persuade the North to dismantle its nuclear program, other countries should adopt a more realist, incremental approach.

So much for refraining from exporting nuclear technology. It’s still of no consequence to Beijing, whose support for Kim Jong Il never wavered in any meaningful way. A diplomat to his very core, Shen next implicitly compares the United States to Nazi Germany:

Of course, not everyone agrees with the assertion that North Korea is entitled to develop and acquire nuclear weapons. Yet these opponents usually reach their conclusion based purely on national or regional interests. They fail to understand that a peaceful world can only be achieved when all nations feel equally secure. The U.S. felt insecure when it learned that Nazi Germany was developing a nuclear bomb, prompting the Manhattan Project.

Shen continued to send the same signal to North Korea three days before its first confirmed nuclear test, writing here for the Nautilus Institute:

Our country has not many choices when it comes to whether or not the DPRK will conduct a nuclear test. This is because the Sino-DPRK security relationship is not a one-way street. It is impossible for China to apply excessive pressure on the DPRK. It is impossible for us to prevent the DPRK from realizing its fundamental interests while not harming our country’s fundamental interests. In the past there was such a balance of interests. It is still true today as “Taiwan independence” [forces] run rampant. Basically, our country’s work of persuasion with the DPRK in the 12 years that the DPRK developed its nuclear program had been a failure. The causes are evident.

Please do not fail to notice that Shen, not I, was the first one to link the issues of Taiwan and North Korea. Now for extra fun and 50% more veracity, reread Shen’s words, only think “Taiwan” when Shen says “North Korea,” and think “China” where Shen says “the U.S.”

For our State Department, there often seems to be no higher purposes than avoiding offense to the Chinese government, and when an apologist for and subsidiary of China Inc. like Chas Freeman can be nominated for an important national security position in the U.S. government, it’s enough to suggest a few guesses as to why. I certainly don’t see us gaining any cooperation from China by failing to impose real consequences on China for its continued support for Kim Jong Il, UN sanctions notwithstanding.

Granted, helping Taiwan to go nuclear would require some creative interpretation of the “Three Communiques,” among which was a commitment that U.S. “arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed … in qualitative or quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years.” I certainly do not propose that the United States transfer functioning nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles to Taiwan. It would suffice to quietly transfer the technology needed for Taiwan to develop its own indigenous ballistic missile capability, and to let Taiwan know that the United States would not object if Taiwan decided to close its nuclear fuel cycle. If we’re really serious about putting pressure on China, boosting Taiwan’s security, and giving Taiwan a deterrent that doesn’t depend on the U.S. Navy, then we should quietly assist Taiwan to acquire the technology to develop its own ballistic missiles, and do nothing to discourage its acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Just like China did for North Korea.

4 comments

  1. GI Korea says:

    Considering that the North Koreans were able to secretly build a nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007 before the Israelis bombed it this latest news comes as no surprise. I doubt the UN’s investigation is going to lead to anything other then maybe a stern letter.

    As far as allowing Taiwan to build nuclear weapons there is validity to the argument but my concern would be that the Chinese would use this as an excuse to attack the island before they were able to build them. This is especially true if the US and the west attack Iran to stop them from building nukes. The Chinese could use the same rationale to attack Taiwan to stop them from building nukes.

  2. Greg Andrews says:

    GI Korea’s comment above makes sense, but it, and Mr. Stanton’s writing in this thread assume that at this time, Taiwan does not ALREADY have nuclear weapons. All informed observers would strongly doubt that Taiwan has made any moves toward this goal, of course, and yet . . . Taiwan has the means, motive, and opportunity to make it happen. Taiwan does know something

    http://world-nuclear.org/info/inf115_taiwan.html

    about nuclear power and engineering. If they did not feel like dealing with the engineering and production hassles, they would need to find a vendor with the merchandise for sale. An almost impossible task, because they would need a vendor in their similar situation – tiny, highly prosperous, whip smart, razor sharp survival instinct motivated by history and psycho-bully neighbors, etc. I simply can’t think of a vendor which fits the description . . .

  3. The Shen Dingli piece at Nautilus has been moved; I believe this is the October 3, 2006, piece you were referencing: http://www.nautilus.org/publications/essays/napsnet/forum/security/0681Shen.html/

    Nice work as usual.

  4. Bob Violence says:

    Re: Taiwan and nukes — um, I assume everyone here is aware who just won re-election there, right? No harm discussing it as a long-term option, but we’re looking at another four years before the possibility of a government that might even consider such an idea, presuming Taiwan and China haven’t already “reunified” by then.

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