- - Monday, July 10, 2017


Unless they are wasting a lot of the taxpayers’ money, presumably the allied intelligence community knows a lot about Chinese-North Korean missile cooperation. Going back to the first President Bush, administrations of both political parties have been reluctant to share what they know with the rest of us. Occasionally, however, something useful appears above the water line:

1955: People’s Liberation Army watchers still debate whether it was a good idea to deport Chinese rocket scientist Qian Xuesen on the grounds that he was a Red. What we do know is that he became the father of the Chinese missile and space program. Early Chinese missiles bore some resemblance to the U.S. missile program he had been working on before he left. Ironically, the U.S. missile program owed its origins in part to the research Qian made in Germany shortly after World War II. As the late Iris Chang noted in her definitive biography of Qian, “Thread of the Silkworm,” during the various political upheavals in China, Qian denounced Chinese colleagues to Mao’s security service and they suffered as a consequence.

Early spring 1994: The American Defense Intelligence Agency’s director, Gen. James Clapper, was deeply concerned that time was running out for the United States and its allies to stop the North Korean strategic weapons programs. He had already told the Hill in open session, “Based on North Korean actions to date, the DIA assesses that North Korea will continue its nuclear weapons program despite any agreement to the contrary.”

At some point, a DIA analyst noticed that a mock-up of an important, new North Korean missile was lying horizontally on a dolly out in the open. The enterprising analyst put an overlay from a U.S. spy satellite of a Chinese intermediate range ballistic missile, the CSS-2, over the top of the North Korean missile and the rivets matched — i.e., the two were obviously identical. Somehow this story made its way to the March 15, 1994 Wall Street Journal with a comment from an unnamed DIA official: “Presumably, the only way [North Korean engineers] would know how to build something the size of the CSS-2 is either physical transfer of the beast or of engineers familiar with the program.” This mock-up eventually became the North Korean Taepodong 2 missile system.

April 2004: Typically, North Korean dictators visit Beijing by train. When they return to North Korea, a second Chinese train, called the “gifts train” follows a few hours behind them. In April 2004, a Chinese gifts train exploded in the rail yard of Ryongchon, a North Korean town near the Chinese border. Even the Chinese press reported that the town center had been “totally flattened’ and that “the railroad station and the surrounding buildings were obliterated.” One of these buildings was an elementary school packed with students and teachers across from the train yard. The children were all killed or badly wounded from shrapnel and burns. Few would have survived. Satellite photos revealed the characteristic blast of solid rocket fuel, missile-related equipment and the remains of the unique containers that housed them. According to a former DIA officer, Bruce E. Bechtol Jr., about a dozen Syrian missile technicians accompanying the train were also casualties. By the BBC’s estimate, at least 3,000 people were killed by the blast.

May 2011: The U.N. Panel of Experts, which was established to investigate the North Korean missile program, discovered the North Koreans were engaged in missile technology exchanges with Iran, through a “third country,” while both Iran and North Korea were under U.N. sanctions. When the release of their report was secretly blocked by China, they told Reuters that China was blocking the report and China was the “third country.”

April 17, 2012: The chairman of the House Armed Forces Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Rep. Michael Turner, Ohio Republican, wrote a letter to Gen. Clapper, then the director of National Intelligence, telling him that according to American specialist Richard Fisher, the new North Korean missile Transporter-Erector-Launcher just displayed in Pyongyang was “very likely based on a Chinese design. There is even the possibility that it was manufactured in China for North Korea’s use.”

How Gen. Clapper responded to Mr. Turner is not public, but what is public is the same Transporter-Erector-Launcher delivered North Korea’s ICBM to the launch pad on July 4.

A neat package: Over the years, Beijing has supplied North Korea the missiles, trained the engineers, supplied the rocket fuel, facilitated its missile trade with Iran, and finally made it possible to move a North Korean ICBM into position to strike the United States.

• William C. Triplett II is the former chief counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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