Last month, a team of South Korean scientists led by professor Bae Myung-jin of Soongsil University’s Sound Research Lab announced their conclusion that the Republic of Korea navy corvette Cheonan probably was sunk by a Chinese Yu-3 heavy torpedo, presumably fired by a North Korean submarine. And just last week, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il’s heavily tinted and armored train was spotted entering and leaving Beijing’s Central Train Terminal. It looks as if Mr. Kim made a round trip to Beijing on a resupply mission. It wouldn’t be the first time.
On April 22, 2004, within hours of Mr. Kim’s train passing through on the return leg from another Beijing visit, the train station at Ryongchon, 10 miles inside North Korea, blew up with a thunderous explosion. Initial reports were that 3,000 people were killed or badly wounded. By the time international observers got to the scene some days later, the bodies of at least 76 dead children had been dug out of the rubble. Before-and-after overhead photos of the Ryongchon Primary School showed that it was effectively destroyed. The blast caused extensive damage for a mile in all directions. Anything within 500 yards of the explosion was leveled. The huge crater in the middle of the railroad yard was easily seen from overhead, and airborne debris drifted over several neighboring countries.
The question of causation led to immediate speculation by international observers. Considering how closely this disaster followed Mr. Kim’s train passing through the station, was this a botched assassination attempt? Or was this just an unfortunate accident with agricultural fertilizer or mining explosives? Or was it something altogether different?
It took a while before the word seeped out of foreign defense agencies: The explosion was of solid rocket fuel from China being transferred from a Chinese train to a North Korean train at the Ryongchon rail yard. Probably no one will ever know why (because all the witnesses are dead), but somehow, the whole thing went up. Both the Chinese and North Korean trains were gone in an instant. Two Chinese, probably the engineers of one of the trains, were officially listed as killed in the accident.
Although certainly a tragedy for the victims, the Ryongchon disaster serves the useful purpose of dragging the cloak off the Beijing- Pyongyang arms relationship. Essentially, the communist Chinese elite and the North Korean elite are partners, sometimes with others, in the business of smuggling weapons to the nastier parts of the world. Beijing doesn’t want to be seen to have dirty hands. But it does want the money, and there is a lot of it, in foreign exchange, in the capable hands of offshore bankers who specialize in money laundering. Eighty-dollars-a-barrel oil makes this sort of enterprise very lucrative, and the coming $100-a-barrel oil will make it even more rewarding. The North Koreans don’t care. To them, enhancing their tough-guy image is a positive development. But they, too, want the money. It’s a lot of what keeps the Kim regime afloat.
So a partnership of convenience. In most cases, Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army develops the weapons, supplies the technology to make them and some critical parts that North Korea can’t produce itself, such as solid rocket fuel. The North Koreans are responsible for production, marketing and delivery. In other cases, Beijing has to supply the complete item, and Pyongyang only does the delivery, for a reasonable cut of the action, of course. In yet other cases, Beijing, Pyongyang and their more junior partners may collaborate on the site of a major project inside a rogue regime, for example.
The big money in these Beijing-Pyongyang arms deals lies in the international market, but the deals also include sophisticated Chinese arms - for example, torpedoes - for the North Korean military establishment itself. Beijing is as irresponsible in sales directly to North Korea as it is in sales through North Korea to terrorist states. It is not surprising that the North Koreans would use a Chinese torpedo on the South Korean navy or that Mr. Bae and his team could use modern acoustics research to reach their conclusion. What is surprising is that Seoul would permit Mr. Bae to go public with his theory. Perhaps the loss of 46 sailors made the South Korean government less worried about offending Beijing.
While the delivery of weaponry and related items from China to North Korea increases and decreases depending on production schedules, the international marketplace and so forth, there often seems to be an upswing in deliveries associated with Mr. Kim’s visits. In 2004, it was the second, Chinese, “gift train” following a few hours behind Mr. Kim on his return to North Korea that exploded in Ryongchon. This time, they are likely to be more careful, and more discrete, but the China-North Korea arms-smuggling partnership will continue.
William C. Triplett II is the author of “Rogue State” (Regnery, 2003).