China has provided some assistance to North Korea's missile program, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday, a week after the hermit state's failed rocket launch triggered international condemnation.
Under United Nations Security Council resolutions from 2006 and 2009, states, including China, are banned from helping North Korea with its ballistic missile program, its nuclear activities as well as supplying heavy weapons.
Beijing has denied it has broken any rules, although a modern missile transporter seen in Sunday's military parade to celebrate the founder of North Korea was said by some western military experts to be of Chinese design and possibly origin.
"I'm sure there's been some help coming from China. I don't know, you know, the exact extent of that," Panetta told members of the House Armed Services Committee when asked whether China had been supporting North Korea's missile program through "trade and technology exchanges".
North Korea's powerful Asian neighbor is Pyongyang's only major ally, with military and economic ties that date back to the communist origins of the two nations.
Pyongyang has said it was ready to retaliate in the face of widespread condemnation of the failed launch, increasing the likelihood the isolated state will go ahead with a third nuclear test. Late on Thursday it said it had "never recognized the UNSC (U.N. Security Council) resolution".
After last week's launch, which the United States said was a disguised long-range missile test but which Pyongyang insists was meant to put a satellite into orbit, the Obama administration said it had suspended a food aid deal.
Pyongyang retorted the food aid was "worth a petty amount of money".
BEIJING CALLS FOR DIALOGUE
China has called for "dialogue and communication" as tensions with North Korea mount and reiterated its long-standing call for a return to regional denuclearization talks that have been stalled for years.
On Thursday, South Korea said it had added a cruise missile to its arsenal that could hit anywhere in the North, raising the risk that any attack on the South, like the shelling of an island in 2010, would prompt an immediate response.
In Thursday's hearing, Republican Rep. Michael Turner pressed Panetta about a transporter launcher system - essentially a large truck on top of which a missile is mounted - that North Korea showcased during a military parade on Sunday, which he said appeared to be made in China.
Panetta declined to give additional details about any Chinese support for North Korea's missile capabilities in a public setting due to "the sensitivity of that information".
"But clearly there's been assistance along those lines," the Defense Secretary said.
Panetta said there was "no question" North Korea's efforts to develop long-range missile and nuclear weapon capability were a threat to the United States. "For that reason we take North Korea and their provocative actions very seriously," he said.
"And China ought to be urging them to engage in those kinds of ... diplomatic negotiations. We thought we were making some progress and suddenly we're back at provocation," he added.
While the United States was ready to up the pressure on Beijing, officials in South Korea remained wary of upsetting China, which is the largest single export destination for Asia's fourth largest economy.
"If it is confirmed (that it is sold by the Chinese), it would be a problem," said a foreign ministry official in Seoul, who did not wish to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue but added that South Korea was not pushing China for an explanation.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim and David Chance in SEOUL)