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Truck raises questions about China's role in North Korea's missile program

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
updated 6:15 AM EDT, Fri April 20, 2012
A North Korean missile Taepodong class is displayed during a military parade in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012.
A North Korean missile Taepodong class is displayed during a military parade in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Focus turns to truck spotted in Pyongyan military parade
  • Truck is known as a "transporter, erector, launcher" or TEL
  • U.N. investigating whether the TEL came from China
  • Analyst says Koreans may have built the truck themselves

Washington (CNN) -- After weeks of military analysts examining the latest North Korean rocket before and after its failed launch, the focus now has turned to a truck.

It's not just any truck. It's known as a "transporter, erector, launcher," TEL for short, and is designed to move a long-range missile into place, stand it upright and launch it from just about anywhere in North Korea. The truck was spotted in a military parade in Pyongyang last weekend with what experts say is a new long-range rocket on board.

The United Nations is investigating if the TEL came from China in violation of U.N. resolutions, a U.S. official tells CNN. The U.N. Security Council committee that monitors implementation of the sanctions on North Korea is investigating, the official said. The investigation was first reported by Jane's Defense Weekly.

Asked about the TEL during a hearing Thursday of the House Armed Services committee, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, "I'm sure there's been some help coming from China. I don't know, you know, the exact extent of that."

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Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies agrees. "There is no question that there is a long history in the past of Chinese and North Korea cooperation on missile technology."

But he cautioned that "until you can absolutely confirm that the system was made in China and is a violation of the missile technology regime, that does not mean that because something came out of China it's a violation of any of China's agreements."

Charles Vick, a missile analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, points out the truck may not have been made in China. "It may be an offshoot derivation that the Koreans built themselves, but basically it's the same design," he said.

Or China may have sold the truck to North Korea in the years before the sanctions were in place. "That is not clear, how it arrived there, but it's a commercially available tractor truck," Vick said.

As for the rocket/missile the truck was carrying. Few experts are willing to say what was seen in the parade was real, "I think you create parade missiles for public display that don't have all the external equipment that's on them versus the real flight vehicles."

Vick is convinced that the rocket, if there's a real version, would be an adaptation of old Soviet technology, not a new version of it's Taepodong-2. "This is a new design, a much more compact design."

Cordesman said there is much we don't know about the rocket. "There are times when none of us really know since we can't look inside the skin," he said. "None of us have the faintest idea. First we don't know if it's real, (and) if it is real you need to talk about reliability or the guidance system."

On that point even Panetta, who used to be CIA director, agrees: "I have to tell you we need, frankly, to get better intelligence as to exactly what those capabilities are, exactly, you know, what's real and what's not real here, in order to determine exactly what that threat represents."

But North Korea's recent failed launch demonstrated that it has made little progress in developing long-range missiles, according to the director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly told a congressional committee earlier this week, "Our experience has been you need a lot of testing and flight testing in order to validate and have reliance in the capability. They do not, and it's been evident every time they test. And their progress has not been made apparent in this latest flight test."

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