North Korea earlier this year attempted to export to Syria graphite cylinders that could be used to build ballistic missiles, but the freight was confiscated by South Korea, anonymous U.N. envoys told Reuters on Tuesday.
The Chinese ship Xin Yan Tai in May was transporting the 445 cylinders, which were falsely claimed to be lead piping, when the vessel was searched by South Korean inspectors while in dock at the Busan seaport, according to U.N. Security Council diplomats.
Seoul last month informed the special Security Council panel with oversight on North Korean sanctions of the cargo seizure. Beijing has proposed to assist in the probe of the apparent breach of economic penalties imposed on Pyongyang.
Security Council sanctions prohibit all weapon exports from the North, which is being punished for its continued development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Still, reports of Pyongyang attempting to flout the sanctions are routinely heard by the council sanctions panel. Iran, Syria and until recently Myanmar have been accused of conspiring with the North to violate the international weapon trade restrictions.
The graphite cylinders were to be delivered to the Syrian firm Electric Parts. The envoys said the items seemed to be suitable for employment in developing ballistic missiles.
"It appears the cylinders were intended for Syria's missile program. China assured us they will investigate what looks like a violation of U.N. sanctions," one unidentified envoy said.
A separate envoy said, "It's possible that the crew of the Chinese ship had no idea what this shipment really was. It's good that China's expressed a willingness to investigate."
China has been accused in the past of not doing enough to curb the proliferation activities of its longtime ally.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the nation rigorously enforces U.N. sanctions against the North as well as its national trade restrictions.
A North Korean export firm organized the sale and transport of the cylinders, according to envoys. The Syrian company that was due to receive the suspected missile parts could be a subdivision of the North Korean company, one diplomat said.