TOKYO - Japan has evidence vehicles that could be used for transporting and launching missiles were exported to North Korea by a Chinese company in possible violation of United Nations' trade restrictions on weapons technology, Japanese media reported Wednesday.
Four of the vehicles were shipped from Shanghai to North Korea last August aboard the Harmony Wish, a Cambodian-flagged cargo vessel, according to the reports.
The reports said Japanese authorities had been tracking the ship by satellite, and searched it when it transited the port of Osaka the following month.
Such vehicles — called TELs, for transporter, erector, launcher — became the focus of international attention when they were displayed in a military parade in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, in April. They are a concern because they could give the North the ability to transport long-range missiles around its territory, making them harder to locate and destroy.
Japan's top government spokesman on Wednesday refused to confirm the reports. But he said that if necessary, Japan will work with the international community to determine if U.N. regulations were violated.
Although no suspicious vehicles were aboard the ship when it was searched in Japan, authorities found documents detailing the contents of the cargo it had unloaded in North Korea, and that included the vehicles, according to the Asahi, a major Japanese newspaper. It cited multiple but unnamed government sources.
It said the exported vehicles were believed to have been the ones used in the military parade, which was held shortly after a North Korea rocket launch that was widely condemned as an attempt to develop its long-range missile technology. The rocket, which North Korea claimed carried a satellite, failed soon after liftoff.
NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, and other media later had similar reports, also citing unnamed government sources.
The Asahi said the evidence was shared with South Korea and the United States, but claimed Washington requested it not be made public.
It identified the Chinese exporter as Wuhan Sanjiang Import Export Co., a subsidiary of state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp., and the North Korean importer as Rimmok General Trading, which it said was likely a front company.
Immediately after the parade, private experts said the vehicles probably came from China, citing similarities to Chinese design patterns in the windscreen, the windscreen wiper configuration, the door and handle, the grill, the front bumper lighting configurations, and the cabin steps.
China's Foreign Ministry issued a statement in April denying any wrongdoing.
"China firmly opposes the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery," it said, adding that China strictly follows the relevant export control resolutions of the U.N. Security Council.
Despite the latest reports, experts say pinning a sanctions-busting charge on Beijing would be difficult because it would be hard to prove that Beijing knowingly approved the exports for military purposes.
With different modifications, the vehicle can also be used in commercial fields. The Asahi report said that China claims the vehicles were to be used to carry lumber.
Associated Press writer Scott McDonald contributed to this report from Beijing.