While foreign policy failed to rise to prominence during the election, the United States will not be able to escape the price of foreign policy failure. One crisis that started during President Obama’s first term, which could “explode” during his second, is that of China’s blatant contribution to a North Korean nuclear missile capability.
On Oct. 8, the North Korean Central News Agency for the first time claimed North Korean missiles could “strike” the “U.S. mainland.” That same day in Washington, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland brushed off the claim, saying, “Rather than bragging about its missile capability [North Korea] ought to be feeding its people.”
Considering the tale that began unfolding last April, it is possible to conclude that North Korea may very well have a missile with sufficient range and payload to carry a small nuclear weapon as far as Anchorage, Alaska (population 296,000). If it has indeed succeeded in developing a new 5,500km range missile, which it would need to reach Anchorage, it is very likely that Pyongyang received significant help from its one and only ally, China.
On April 15 of this year, North Korea held a large military parade, which for the first time, featured a large, three-stage missile carried by a new 16-wheel transporter-erector-launcher (TEL). Chinese military enthusiasts on the Internet were among the first to identify the TEL as a version of the WS2600 made by the Sanjiang Space Special Vehicle Corporation of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). CASIC and its TEL-making subsidiary produce a family of medium-range and short-range solid-fuel ballistic missiles for China’s People’s Liberation Army, and are a key source of technology for Pakistan’s intermediate-range and short-range solid-fuel ballistic missiles.
While the new missile seen in the parade is generally viewed by experts as a mock-up of a new liquid fuel missile, it should be considered that CASIC’s role in providing the TEL may indicate it played some role in developing or producing its missile. Indicators that the missile may be liquid fueled could be a ruse; for a while CASIC tried to conceal the origin of its Pakistani missiles by building unique missile variants and TELs. But it is also possible that CASIC or another Chinese company provided new liquid fuel motor technology for this missile. In March 1994, the Wall Street Journal reported that analysts in the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessed that China had provided large liquid-fueled rocket technology, and a solid-fueled third stage, for North Korea’s Taepodong space launcher later tested unsuccessfully in 1998.
At a minimum, it would be astounding that China would sell North Korea a large and sophisticated TEL for its new missile. Not only does this sale violate two recent United Nations Security Council resolutions barring the sale of missile technology to North Korea, but as stated in April by House Strategic Force Subcommittee Chairman Michael Turner, it “undermines the Administration’s entire policy of investing China with the responsibility of getting tough on North Korea.” Could it be that China’s great diplomatic investment since 2004 in leading the Six Party Talks, ostensibly for rolling back Pyongyang’s nuclear missile development, was merely a deception to enable this very threat?
And what of the U.S. reaction, given that these missiles are primarily aimed at Americans? Once North Korea tests its new missiles, it can be assured that they, and/or their technology, will be sold to Iran, which then could reach all of Europe from defended bases in Central Iran. Based on early reports and officials’ leaks to Japan’s Asahi Shimbun in June, the administration response has been at least as confused and dangerous as its reaction to the September attack against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. At first, White House “sources” sought to dissemble, on April 19 telling the New York Times the TEL transfer was “poor Chinese performance in sanctions implementation, but not willful proliferation,” after earlier that same day Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta admitted to the House Armed Services Committee, “I’m sure there’s been some help coming from China.”
In June the story became worse, when the Asahi Shimbun, citing information from a Japanese government official (who later committed suicide), reported that both the U.S. and Japan had been tracking China’s transfer of the massive TELs since at least August 2011. Asahi reported that the reason China was not subjected to the appropriate protests or sanctions was that the Obama administration did not want to upset Beijing while it was putatively seeking its help to avert a future North Korean nuclear weapons test.
The results of this inept policy are: China has not been punished for further enabling the nuclear missile capability of a terrorist state and WMD proliferator; a new nuclear threat may target Americans; and America’s decades-long investment in deterring North Korean and Chinese aggression, including the recent and well-received “Pivot” to Asia, have been undermined by administration inaction. All of this combines to weaken U.S. security in Asia.
Fifty years ago it took President John F. Kennedy 13 days to stand down Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, forcing him to withdraw his SS-4 intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Cuba, thus averting war. In a crisis with similar elements, and equal potential for danger to Americans, the Obama administration’s response has offered no similar “profile in courage.” By failing to stand up to China’s blatant enabling of a new nuclear threat to Americans, it has given Pyongyang another year to build its nuclear missiles.
Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.