Sankei Shimbun, the conservative Japanese newspaper, reported on Sunday that North Korea is planning to use five Chinese businessmen to smuggle equipment to Iran for use in its nuclear and missile programs. According to an unnamed source, an Iranian delegation, including senior officials from the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, visited the North last month to help plan the transfers.
The five Chinese intermediaries are located in Hunchun, near the North Korean border, and Beijing. Pyongyang and Tehran have been planning to use the intermediaries to minimize travel between them as a means of avoiding detection by international weapons inspectors and Western intelligence agencies.
Both Beijing and Tehran have denied similar allegations. Yet whether this particular Sankei report is true, China has facilitated nuclear transfers of technology to the two states, both directly and through Pakistan.
All four nations have uranium enrichment programs that are based on China’s technology. That’s no coincidence because Beijing covertly transferred the technology to Pakistan beginning in 1974 in a now well-documented cooperation.
Later, Dr. A. Q. Khan, the “father of Pakistan’s bomb,” merchandised that technology to the two other states. Khan’s dealings with North Korea began sometime in the early 1990s. Islamabad and Pyongyang, for instance, had entered into a nukes-for-missiles deal with “Pakistani” enrichment technology heading to North Korea and North Korean missiles going to Pakistan. Pakistani air force planes involved in transferring items covered by this arrangement—including centrifuges used to enrich uranium to weapons-grade purity—refueled at a military base in Lanzhou, in central China, on their way to and from North Korea in 2002.
It is inconceivable that Beijing was unaware that its two closest allies were trading one of its most sensitive technologies and using its own military facilities to complete the exchange. Since 2002, the United States has sanctioned Chinese companies for transferring to the North items useful in a uranium-weapons program. Scruples
With regard to Iran, analysts concur with the staff of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, that Tehran obtained centrifuges from the Khan network. Khan in fact confessed to transfers to Iran.
Yet China directly—and continuously—transferred to Iran materials and technology, even after 1997 when, in behind-the-scenes discussions between Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and US President Bill Clinton, Beijing promised Washington to stop supporting the ayatollah’s nuclear program. In November 2003, for example, the Associated Press reported that the staff of the IAEA had identified China as one of the probable sources of equipment used in Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. And in July 2007, the Wall Street Journal reported that the State Department had lodged formal protests with Beijing about Chinese companies, in violation of Security Council resolutions on Iran, exporting to that country items that could help Tehran build nuclear weapons.
China’s assistance has, unfortunately, continued into this decade. This March, for instance, Malaysian police in Port Klang seized two containers from a ship en route to Iran from China. Authorities believe that items labeled “goods used for liquid mixing or storage for pharmaceutical or chemical or food industry” were actually parts for nuclear warheads.
The Sankei report indicates that Beijing, despite decades of assurances to the United States, is still involved in the most dangerous trade in the world.