Trump Needs to Confront Beijing: North Korean Missiles Fly on Chinese Technology

The administration needs to ask hard questions about how North Korea was able to develop an ICBM so quickly, and why it was riding on a Chinese-built vehicle.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

On Tuesday, North Korea launched what it called a Hwasong-14.

The missile flew only a little more than 550 miles downrange but reached an altitude of 1,740 miles. Fired on a normal trajectory, the Hwasong-14 would have traveled at least 4,100 miles.

The missile was not, as Pyongyang claimed, “capable of hitting any part of the world,” but it was an intercontinental ballistic missile and able to reach the fringes of the American homeland, all of Alaska and the approaches to the main islands of Hawaii.

The ICBM test sets up a confrontation, not just between the U.S. and North Korea but also between the U.S. and China.

In his televised New Year’s Day message this year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un suggested his regime would soon conduct an “intercontinental ballistic rocket launch,” in other words, a missile test. 

One day later, President-elect Trump tweeted this: “It won’t happen!”

It just did. And to add insult to injury, it happened on July 4.

So now that the Norks have unmistakably defied Trump, there are two things in particular to watch in the coming days. First, analysts will be seeing how the White House handles the Chinese.

The U.S. is trying to rally the international community and, as part of this effort, has called for a closed-door UN Security Council session, now scheduled for Wednesday.

If the past is any guide, China, along with junior partner Russia, will try to stall and water down measures proposed by the U.S. In the past, Chinese rearguard actions helped North Korea because Washington, although insisting it had the right to act beyond UN measures, rarely did so.

Trump, however, has made it clear that the U.S. will act alone to defend itself. And this missile test, much more than the others this year, is perceived as putting Americans at risk.

If Beijing resorts to its old playbook, it risks Trump imposing severe costs. This week, after all, follows a series of decisive actions against a China that disappointed Trump over not doing more to defang North Korea.

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From Monday to Thursday, Trump hammered Beijing. On Monday, the American president welcomed the leader of China’s adversary, India, to the White House in an unmistakable signal to the Chinese. On Tuesday, the State Department dropped China to the worst ranking—Tier 3—in its annual Trafficking in Persons report. On Thursday, the Treasury Department sawed off the Bank of Dandong, a shady Chinese bank, from the global financial system and sanctioned a Chinese shipping company and two Chinese individuals. That same day, the administration notified Congress of a proposed sale of arms to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province.

And on Sunday Trump iced the cake when a U.S. Navy destroyer, the Stethem, passed close by a Chinese-held island in the South China Sea in a “freedom of navigation” exercise that enraged Beijing.

If the Chinese do not come around fast at the Security Council, they could find themselves the target of more Trump actions. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement on the missile launch looks as if the administration is targeting North Korea’s enablers as much as the North itself. A renewed campaign against Beijing will signal that last week’s actions were indeed the beginning of a tougher approach toward China.

Tougher approach? A U.S. official told CNN that the administration is looking to formulate a “measured response.” “Measured” sounds fine, but there is not much time for responses of any kind to work. The July 4 test resembles the one on May 14, another high-arc shot. The earlier test appears to have demonstrated that North Korea’s heat shielding for warheads works. The heat shielding is thought by some to be the last major technical hurdle before Kim positions nukes on missiles able to hit the Lower 48 states.

Second, a real test of the Trump administration is whether it begins questioning the Chinese over how the North Koreans were able to make such fast progress in developing an ICBM. “In the past five years, we have seen significant, and much more rapid than expected development of their ballistic-missiles capability,” Victor Cha, rumored to be Trump’s pick for ambassador to Seoul, told The Washington Post. “Their capabilities have exceeded our expectations on a consistent basis.”

That’s for sure. The missile tested Monday is not something the North Koreans derived from their old Soviet-era designs. It is, as Jeffrey Lewis of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies said, a brand new model.

So how did the Kim regime develop an entirely new missile? One explanation—and perhaps the most likely—is that the Chinese helped. As an initial matter, the Hwasong-14 rides on a Chinese vehicle supplied by Sanjiang Space Special Vehicle Corp, which is owned by a company closely associated with China’s People’s Liberation Army.

More important, the missiles North Korea tested on Aug. 24 of last year and Feb. 12 and May 21 of this year look to be variants of China’s JL-1 submarine-launched missile. And on April 15 of this year, the North Koreans paraded a canister, on top of another Sanjiang vehicle, that looks like the one China uses to transport its DF-41 ICBM.

This is not to say the Chinese just gave the plans for new missiles to their North Korean allies, but it does mean the Trump administration needs to ask Beijing—in public as well as in private—how Chinese and Chinese-looking equipment and missiles are showing up in the North’s inventory.

There are many ways the North Koreans could have developed the Hwasong-14. The least likely explanation is that they built it without outside help.