SEOUL North Korea is using Chinese-made trucks in a new mobile artillery system showcased five days ago, according to photographs reviewed by Reuters, 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 some markings of a Chinese-made Sinotruk (3808.HK) 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".
China's Foreign Ministry, asked about the trucks, said the government has consistently followed U.N. resolutions.
"China will strengthen its strict controls," spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing in Beijing.
Calls to Sinotruk's headquarters in the northern Chinese city of Jinan went unanswered.
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.
On Wednesday, Kim said the country had miniaturised nuclear warheads to be mounted on ballistic missiles, his first direct comments on a claim that had been previously made in the country's state media but has yet to be independently verified.
Many experts have questioned whether the North has the know-how to mount a miniaturised nuclear warhead on a missile and complete a functioning weapons system.
The rockets fired by the new MRLS 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.
In South Korea, a U.S. artillery brigade carried out live fire drills on Wednesday, launching a barrage of rockets close to the border town of Cheorwon.
USED IN CONSTRUCTION AND MINING
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 Sinotruk 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.
A U.N. panel said in a report released on Tuesday that vehicles carrying multiple rocket launchers seen at a parade in Pyongyang last year were nearly identical to trucks made by a Chinese company. It did not name the company.
According to the report, China told the panel that the company had "put a clear clause that the buyer agrees and ensures that this batch of trucks exported to (North Korea) should only be used in civilian activities" and that the sales contract says "the buyer shall use the trucks solely for forest area operations and timber transportation."
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 (£35,136 - £42,164).
(Additional reporting by Jessica Macy Yu, Megha Rajagopalan and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Donny Kwok in HONG KONG; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jack Kim)