By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A Chinese firm that intelligence agencies believe provided North Korea with the body of an off-road transport vehicle used to carry missiles appears to have a press release on its website that boasts about the sale, U.N. diplomats told Reuters.
Washington suspects that the Chinese firm, Hubei Sanjiang Space Wanshan Special Vehicle Co., did not sell North Korea an entire vehicle, but a chassis, and may have believed it was for civilian purposes, suggesting the company did not intentionally flout U.N. sanctions, a U.S. official said.
The official also said the firm likely made the sale to a front company that was used to mask the buyer's true identity. The company denies having trade links to North Korea.
U.N. diplomats in New York said that some U.N. delegations are also aware of the case and are looking into whether Hubei Sanjiang might have violated the U.N. ban on selling North Korea technology that can support its ballistic missile program.
Even if it is not a violation of U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang, the use of a specialized Chinese vehicle to parade North Korean missiles would be more than a little awkward, the Western diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
They said that a press release posted on Hubei Sanjiang's website last year appears to boast about the sale of the chassis that ended up in Pyongyang, though it did not name the customer. (http://www.wstech.com.cn/en)
The press release also said that the company was looking forward to future cooperation with "the consumer" of the item, which the diplomats said has the model number "WS51200".
It said the successful delivery of "the largest Self-propelled Overload Special Off-road Transporter in China" took place on May 17, 2011. The English-language press release also refers specifically to the vehicle chassis, which is what Washington believes Pyongyang purchased.
"During the inspection of this delivery, the consumer was very satisfied with the vehicle and indicated the possible of the next cooperation," it said.
"According to the requirements of the consumer, WS51200, with the total weight of 122 ton, adopted the bran-new overload chassis of WS series which is the largest in China," it said.
One diplomat said intelligence officials were "99 percent certain" the press release referred to the vehicle the North Koreans used to transport a missile in a recent military parade.
HUBEI SANJIANG: NO TRADE WITH NORTH KOREA
Hubei Sanjiang Space Wanshan Special Vehicle is a subsidiary of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, a state-owned company that makes the Shenzhou rocket as well as missiles.
Hubei Sanjiang itself makes vehicles to transport heavy items like ship parts and large-scale machinery. An official in the foreign trade office of Hubei Sanjiang denied that it has had any business with North Korea.
"We've had trade cooperation in the past with South Korea, but not with North Korea," the official said. "We don't have any exchanges with South Korea at the moment."
Asked about the allegations, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said: "China's position has not changed. We remain in touch with all sides, including the United States, on the issue of non-proliferation." The White House confirmed on Monday that it was in touch with China.
North Korea is barred from importing technology for its nuclear and missile programs under sanctions the U.N. Security Council imposed in the wake of Pyongyang's 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests. The sanctions also bar countries from selling North Korea any such technology.
The council rebuked North Korea for a rocket launch earlier this month, saying it was a violation of the U.N. ban on the use of ballistic missile technology by the hermit nation.
The Security Council also directed its sanctions committee to consider adding new names to its blacklist of firms and individuals who will be hit with asset freezes and travel bans for helping North Korea skirt U.N. sanctions.
It was not clear if Hubei Sanjiang Space Wanshan Special Vehicle Co. was a potential candidate for a U.N. blacklisting.
The U.N. Security Council, its North Korea sanctions committee and a U.N. panel of experts that monitor sanctions violations have been looking into the possibility of Chinese breaches of the North Korea sanctions regime, U.N. envoys say.
But even if Chinese firms continue to help North Korea - with or without the blessing of the Beijing government - the council is unlikely to punish China in any way because it is one of the five permanent Security Council members and can therefore block any punitive action against it.
Beijing has long acted as North Korea's protector on the 15-nation Security Council, though it has twice supported sanctions resolutions to demonstrate its annoyance with Pyongyang over its nuclear tests.
(Additional reporting by Beijing bureau; Editing by Eric Walsh)