SEOUL, March 9 (Reuters) - North Korea is using Chinese-made trucks in a new mobile artillery system showcased five days ago, according to photographic evidence, underlining the difficulty in enforcing U.N. sanctions against the isolated state.
North Korea’s Multiple Rocket Launcher System (MRLS) may be able to operate outside the range of similar U.S. and South Korean weapons, according to an expert.
In photographs published by North Korean state media, the vehicle used in the MRLS artillery battery has the bodywork and markings of a Chinese-made Sinotruk HOWO truck, which is widely available commercially and is used by North Korea in its mining and construction industries.
Last week, the United Nations Security Council imposed harsh new sanctions on North Korea for pursuing a nuclear programme following a resolution drafted by the United States and Pyongyang’s ally, China.
An MRLS is a kind of rocket-propelled artillery system capable of firing a barrage of rockets at a target. It is usually mounted on the back of a tank-like chassis, or a truck, and the vehicles do not need much modification.
“You just need a launch tube that you mount on the truck,” said Markus Schiller, a rocketry expert based in Germany.
“It’s almost as easy as mounting a machine gun”.
North Korean media showed leader Kim Jong Un observing the test-firing of the MRLS at an event where he ordered his country to be ready to use its nuclear weapons at any time.
It is not clear if North Korea has successfully miniaturised a nuclear weapon small enough to mount in place of a conventional warhead.
The rockets fired by the new weapon are at the “upper-end” of range estimates of its kind, according to Jeffrey Lewis of the California-based Middlebury Institute of International Studies, writing for the 38 North website that analyses events in North Korea.
The increased range reduces their vulnerability to counter-battery fire by South Korean or U.S. artillery, according to Lewis.
China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but has repeatedly said the government is committed to enforcing the U.N. sanctions on North Korea.
Calls to Sinotruk’s headquarters in the northern Chinese city of Jinan went unanswered.
Recent photos obtained by Reuters showed a civilian version of the Sinotruk - a bright red dumpster - with North Korean registration plates at a Chinese-North Korean border crossing.
North Korean state media has in the past released images of the same Sinotruck HOWO truck chassis and cabin in propaganda related to construction or mining.
The Chinese government uses a military model of a Sinotruk HOWO off-road truck for its own MRLS, according to the 38 North website.
Since 2006, it has been against U.N. sanctions to ship military hardware into North Korea but control of equipment and vehicles into the North that have commercial use has been far less stringent.
It is not clear if North Korea’s military uses the commercial or military version of the Sinotruk HOWO vehicle, but the isolated country has a history of importing Chinese heavy-duty civilian vehicles and using them for military purposes.
In 2010, North Korea’s forestry ministry wrote in a statement to China that six large off-road trucks later spotted in a military parade carrying the KN-08 ballistic missile were bought to transport timber, according to a document in a 2013 United Nations Panel of Experts report.
“I am sure that China will say, like the with the KN-08 transporters, that North Korea provided a false civilian end-use,” Lewis told Reuters.
A salesman for a company advertising civilian and military models of the Sinotruk HOWO cabin and chassis on Chinese online retailer Alibaba said the truck’s strong body would make it ideal for military use, but it was not able to sell the military version of the same truck.
“The military trucks only can be sold by the government,” the salesperson said.
“What we are offering is used for normal transportation”.
It was listed for sale between $50,000-$60,000. (Additional reporting by Megha Rajagopalan and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Donny Kwok in Hong Kong; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)