Category Archives: China-Koreas

China Caught Between Smuggled Oil And Trade Wars

BOTH CHINA AND Russia deny Western accusations that their vessels have been involved in ship-to-ship transfers of oil on the high seas to North Korean tankers in likely contravention of UN sanctions against the Pyongyang regime for its missile testing programme.

Since November, South Korea has detained two ships — one Hong Kong- and the other Panama-registered, alleged to have been involved in such transactions while the UN Security Council has blocked three North Korean- and one Palau-flagged ships from docking at international ports on suspicion of carrying or transporting goods banned by sanctions.

The United States has a list of six more such vessels it wants internationally sanctioned, five China-flagged and one Hong Kong-flagged. Last week, Beijing blocked Washington’s efforts at the UN to have the six ships blacklisted.

In September, the UN cut North Korea’s allowed imports of refined oil to 2 million barrels a year. Its latest round of sanctions further cut the annual quota to 500,000 tonnes and 4 million barrels of crude oil, required the repatriation of all North Korean contract workers abroad within 24 months, and a crackdown on ships smuggling banned items including coal and oil to and from the country.

The United States had wanted a complete ban on oil imports and a freeze of the overseas assets of the government and its leader, Kim Jong-un. That it did not get them, seems to have frayed the patience of the ever-mercurial US President Donald Trump. He told the New York Times last week,

“I have been soft on China because the only thing more important to me than trade is war…If they’re helping me with North Korea, I can look at trade a little bit differently, at least for a period of time. And that’s what I’ve been doing. But when oil is going in, I’m not happy about that.”

Trump had earlier tweeted that China had been “caught RED HANDED” (his all caps) allowing oil into North Korea.

The prompt for that public accusation was a Chosun Ilbo report quoting South Korean government sources as saying that U.S. spy satellites had detected Chinese ships transferring oil to North Korean vessels about 30 times since October. Which is a very roundabout way for a US president to make an accusation based on his own country’s intelligence, especially since U.S. State Department officials have confirmed Washington had evidence that vessels from several countries, including China, had engaged in transshipping oil products and coal to North Korea.

China had long turned a blind eye to smuggling to North Korea but in 2017 started to crack down on it as it shifted stance and began to turn the economic screws on Pyongyang.

The question now is whether Beijing is still turning a selective blind eye. Or is North Korea’s smuggling network, which includes bartering via Russian ports and forging the nationalities and destinations of ships, so well organised that it is beyond being able to be shut down?

The broader concern is that either way Trump will take it as an excuse to move onto his confrontational anti-China trade agenda in 2018. Trump has long argued that foreign countries are taking advantage of America and that America needs to fight back — and that is a message he wants to use to rile up his base support, in 2018 ahead of the US mid-term elections, and again in 2020 when he will be running for re-election as president.

The White House is split on the wisdom of starting a trade war. However, the word from our man in Washington is that the ‘America First’ economic nationalists among Trump’s advisors are currently ascendant and pushing to strike early ahead of the mid-terms while the president himself is itching to slap tariffs first on Chinese electronics and then on steel and aluminium.

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Song Seeks To Open Diplomatic Doors In North Korea

Song Tao, head of the International Department of the Communist Party of China, seen in Moscow in March 2017.

THE PARTY, NOT the government runs China’s relations with North Korea. As head of the Party’s international department, Song Tao (above) is about as senior as it gets in regards to dealing with Pyongyang.

His four-day visit to North Korea is purportedly to brief North Korean party officials on the outcome of the Chinese Communist Party’s recently concluded 19th Party Congress. If he does, it will be, no doubt, be to reiterate the part in General Secretary Xi Jinping’s work report that implied that China is still more than a quarter of a century from military parity with the United States, and, by extension, that if Kim Jong-un thinks he can take on the United States in a war and win, he better think again.

Beijing certainly does want any hostilities on its doorstep. Stability is its primary goal in the nuclear standoff in the Korean peninsula. Kim will not stop his nuclear missiles programme until he has the deterrent that will ensure the continuation of his regime. Washington, for its part, is determined that he will not reach that point.

The only conceivable compromise that will lower tension on the peninsula is for China and the United States to accept that North Korea will develop long-range nuclear weapons (as they have) and work to draw it into the international arrangements that prevent those weapons being used in anger.

Although there has been no mention of it in state media, Song may have met Kim on Sunday with the likely aim of ‘opening the door’ to some semblance of diplomatic exchanges involving Washington and Pyongyang. Beijing thinks the most promising avenue for those would be around a trade-off of North Korea suspending its nuclear and missile tests in return for the suspension of large-scale US-South Korean military exercises.

Song’s trip comes just a week after the Beijing leg of US President Donald Trump five-nation Asia tour. Trump pressed China to do more to rein in North Korea. China, however, does not have as much sway over Pyongyang as Washington seems to believe, though it has more than it will publicly admit.

It has, however, been tougher on sanctions against North Korea than its previous track record in this regard would have led one to expect, and it is strictly enforcing the UN-imposed sanctions on imports of coal, iron ore and seafood from North Korea as well as shutting down banking links.

What effect this is having is difficult to ascertain in any detail, although all the reports reaching us suggest that the economy is being squeezed hard. It had grown by 3.9% in 2016, partly on baseline effects caused by the previous year’s drought, partly because of higher military spending and partly because more entrepreneurial activity had been allowed.

Growth likely slowed from that last year and may be barely 1% this, renewed drought exacerbating the impact of sanctions. In July, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said it was the worst drought since 2001 and that food security would worsen, requiring cereal imports.

A North Korean bulk carrier, the Km Dae, has been making regular trips over the past few months (five since late June) from Nampho to the port of Yingkou, one of six ports ostensibly closed to North Korean shipping. Nampho is the port North Korea has in the past used to receive international food aid. What the vessel was carrying in either direction is unknown, though there are some reports that it docked at a berth in Yingkou used for the coal trade.

Another mystery is why North Korea has not conducted a missile or nuclear test for two months. During that time China has held its Party Congress and Trump has visited Asia, two events that on past experience Kim would have latched on to make some noise.

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China Makes A Show Of Force Near The Korean Peninsula

HQ-16A medium-range air-defense missiles being loaded onto their launch trucks during a combat training exercise at a military range near Bohai Bay in early September, 2017. (Photo credit: He Miao, chinamil.com.cn/)

AN ARTILLERY UNIT from the PLA’s new 81st Group Army has conducted a live-fire anti-missile drill in recent days near Bohai Bay, so close to the border with North Korea. HQ-16A medium-range air-defence missiles (Red Flag 16s, seen above being loaded onto their truck launchers for the exercise) were successfully fired and took out their targets, military media say. The drill, held in ‘early September’, was a combat-readiness test against a surprise attack.

The HQ-16A has a maximum range of 40 kilometres and can take out a ballistic missile flying at either a very low or high altitude at a range of 3.5-18 kilometres. Such missiles are only likely to come from one place, and similarly the message from Beijing is being sent in the opposite, despite the defence ministry issuing a statement saying that the drill was routine annual training and did not target any specific country.

On September 5, at the same site, the PLA-Air Force, also live fired HQ-6s (seen below), a short-range air-defence missile intended to counter close range missiles, including those launched at sea, or aircraft flying at low-to-medium altitudes.

An HQ-6 air-defense missile being live-fired by the PLA Air Force fires at simulated sea and aerial targets during an exercise near Bohai Bay on September 5, 2017. (Photo credit: Li Ming and Xie Biao, chinamil.com)

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North Korea’s Double Dilemma For China

IT IS GETTING ugly on the Korean peninsula, and it was not looking all that pretty to begin with.

However exactly powerful a nuclear bomb North Korea tested over the weekend and whatever the white metallic thing was that the country’s leader Kim Jong-un was photographed posing with — and standing far too close to if it was truly a missile nose cone fitting nuclear device —  it is clear that it is too late to stop Pyongyang ‘nuclearising’.

That poses a what-to-do dilemma for US President Donald Trump, who had said that he would not let Pyongyang get this far with its missile programme. It poses an even bigger one for China, which the Western powers, at least, are blaming for not being tough enough on its ally, while from Beijing’s point of view, it is being asked to take all the risk of dealing with Pyongyang while the United States would get most of the benefit.

As this Bystander has noted before, Washington may overestimate Beijing’s sway over Pyongyang. This weekend’s nuclear test marked the third occasion on which North Korea had upstaged President Xi Jinping at a moment when he wanted to project a particular, and strong face of China to the world.

This weekend was meant to be about Xi presenting the BRICS, with China in the vanguard, as the progressive alternative to an increasingly protectionist West. He will not have appreciated Kim hogging the limelight. That Kim feels confident enough to do that to his only ally, again, implies that North Korea is no dutiful vassal state.

That is not to say that Beijing can do nothing more. It can. It remains North Korea’s primary source of oil and could choke that off, just as it has cut off other trade. It has so far resisted the United States’ pressure to impose such a sanction. It fears that doing so could cause a collapse of the regime that would send millions of refugees flooding across the border into northeastern China and, the far bigger concern, trigger a sudden regime collapse in North Korea that would leave US or US-allied troops hard against its border.

Beijing has in the past cut off oil supplies to North Korea on two occasions. Both times Pyongyang returned to the negotiating table in short order, if only for a while.

There are at least two reasons that Beijing will be reluctant to do so again. First, it does not want to be seen at home or abroad to be knuckling under US pressure. Trump has repeatedly lambasted Beijing for not doing more on sanctions (and when it did, then slapped sanctions on some Chinese companies and has subsequently threatened a trade boycott of any country that trades with North Korea, hardly the thank-you that would encourage further co-operation on this front).

Second, it still does not want to cause a sudden shock that would trigger an economic collapse in North Korea. Instead, it will take incremental back-door steps to cut back oil supplies.

There are signs of this already happening. State-owned China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) stopped shipping diesel and gasoline to North Korea in May and June. Ostensibly, this was a corporate decision made on the basis of uncertainty over getting paid. However, such as decision would not have been taken without the express consent of the Party committee within CNPC, and that consent, in turn, would not have been given without express consent and more likely direction from higher up.

Last year, China shipped more than 96,000 tonnes of gasoline and nearly 45,000 tonnes of diesel, worth a combined $64 million, to North Korea. Most of it came from CNPC, but this Bystander would hazard that more and more of China’s other energy companies will discover they have misgivings about trading with Pyongyang and slowly but steadily the oil supply will be choked off.

The statement from the foreign ministry condemning the weekend’s bomb test offers further signs of Beijing’s hardening position towards Pyongyang. While it still called for a resolution to the situation through dialogue, its language was far harsher towards North Korea than in the statements that had followed the five previous nuclear tests.

Denuclearising the peninsula is probably less of a concern for Beijing than Washington, though Beijing would be more than happy for North Korea not to have an independent nuclear deterrent, and especially if its absence bought a removal of the THAAD missile defence system from South Korea as well.

Its priority is to have as much stability on the peninsula as there can be. South Korea response to Pyongyang’s nuclear test (live-fire missile exercises), the planned deployment of a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in near waters and a Seoul-Washington agreement in principle to increase the 500-kilogramme permissible payload on South Korea missiles will all destabilise the peninsula more than stabilise it, not to mention discomfort Beijing.

In this environment, Beijing has two sets of relationships to manage, one with Pyongyang and the other with Washington. Both have highly unpredictable players on the other side. Beijing’s preferred option is to work through the United Nations to mitigate the volatility and to put the United States on the track of recognising that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions can no longer be contained, only managed.

The UN Security Council met today, and its member countries will be working on a new set of tougher sanctions expected to be presented for a vote at the beginning of next week. There is still a gulf to bridge between the Chinese and US positions. Meanwhile, China will be applying its own economic squeeze on North Korea to get Kim back to any sort of negotiating table before he provokes the United States into taking actions that will trigger the regime chaos that Beijing so fears.

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US Imposes More North Korea Sanctions On Chinese Firms

THE UNITED STATES has given another turn to the financial-sanctions screw it is driving into North Korea. The US Treasury has added six Chinese and Russian individuals and ten organisations with financial ties to Pyongyang’s weapons program to its list of entities banned from conducting business with U.S.-linked companies and individuals.

Most notable among the latest additions is Mingzheng International Trading Ltd, which Washington considers a front company for North Korea’s state-run Foreign Trade Bank, which itself has been subject to American sanctions since 2013. In June, the US Department of Justice filed suit against Mingzheng for laundering money on behalf of blacklisted North Korean entities, seeking to seize $1.9 million of the firm’s funds.

These latest sanctions appear to target coal importers and agencies supplying North Korean labour to foreign countries in its continuing attempt to sever Pyongyang’s supply lines of hard currency needed to fund its nuclear and missile programmes. In the same vein, the US had sanctioned Bank of Dandong, bank, along with Dalian Global Unity Shipping and two Chinese citizens, Sun Wei and Li Hong Ri, in June.

The United States charged that “at least 17%” of the $786m in customer transactions conducted through Bank of Dandong’s  US correspondent accounts from May 2012 to May 2015 involved “companies that have transacted with, or on behalf of, US and UN-sanctioned North Korean entities”.

The bank which is mainly owned by municipal agencies, is small in the order of banks; its assets were only $10.7 billion as of the end of 2016. A bond issuance prospectus last year revealed that the bank a 1% stake in Dandong Xinliu Group, a state-owned company engaged in trade with North Korea.

Unlike the UN sanctions recently announced, which required lengthy negotiations with Beijing, this latest round appears to have been imposed unilaterally by the United States, as evidenced by China’s reaction which was to say the Washington should “immediately correct its mistake”.

For his part, Kim Jong-un has ordered a step-up in the production of warheads and solid-fuel rocket engines for long-range ballistic missiles, taking some of the wind out of the sails of United States officials who have started to suggest that the possibility of a resumption of talks on a negotiated settlement might be appearing on the horizon.

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China Walks The Line On North Korea

THE LIKELY PRICE of China’s support for the tough new sanctions on trade and investment that the United Nations has voted to impose on North Korea is that they do not include oil. That will mitigate the risk of economic collapse in North Korea that Beijing so fears will trigger a tidal wave of refugees into its north-east provinces and the breakdown of internal order in the northern half of the peninsular that could leave US or US-allied troops hard against its border.

Beijing is having to play a difficult game in keeping the Trump administration in Washington from reverting to unilateral military action to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, with all the uncertain consequences that might bring. Our man at the UN sends word that Russia, presumably with China’s support, tried but failed to get the United States to avow military action.

At the same time, Beijing’s erstwhile ally in Pyongyang continues to see the benefits of being a nuclear-armed regime as far outweighing any economic pain it has to endure to get there. Regime survival rather than national well-being is its underlying priority.

In the end, as this Bystander has previously suggested, the rest of the world may have to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea and bring it into the arrangements the nuclear powers use to ensure such weapons are not deployed but remain deterrents.

However, Pyongyang still has a way to go in its nuclear arsenal before it can feels secure with deterrence. It may have an intercontinental ballistic missile that it can lob on the United States, but not yet the capability for that missile to deliver a targeted nuclear strike.

The United States is determined that Pyongyang’s nuclear programme be rolled back, so it does not reach that point. That does not seem something that Pyongyang will accept, as its still inflammatory rhetoric implies. Threats of engulfing the US in “an unimaginable sea of fire” will do little to mollify US President Donald Trump.

China has called on Pyongyang to halt its tests (in exchange for the suspension of large-scale U.S.-South Korean military drills), in a bid to lower the temperature and get the six-party talks going again. Much of the being-the-scenes activity at the ASEAN meeting now underway in Manila and where all the actors including North Korea will be present, will be to that end.

Footnote: The latest UN sanctions ban North Korean exports of coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood. In November, the Security Council capped the North’s coal exports at $400 million annually. China, the largest buyer, suspended imports in February.

Reuters news agency quotes a U.N. diplomat as saying that the expected value of North Korea’s exports of iron and iron ore in 2017 was $251 million, with $113 million coming from lead and lead ore, and $295 million from seafood.

The latest available full year figures from trade data, for 2015, show North Korea’s exports of minerals and metals at $1.4 billion, accounting for 49.9% of exports. Seafood exports totalled $115 million.

The new sanctions also prohibit countries from hiring additional North Korean labourers working abroad, bans new joint ventures with North Korea and any new investment in current joint ventures.

In 2015, a UN human rights investigator estimated that Pyongyang had sent more than 50,000 people to work abroad, mainly in Russia and China, earning between $1.2 billion and $2.3 billion a year for the government.

Enforcement of the sanctions falls heavily on China, which buys 83% of North Korea’s exports.

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A Nuclearised North Korea Will Have To Be Managed, Not Crushed

WHAT IS MOST concerning to this Bystander about North Korea’s latest missile test is not that Pyongyang may have, as it claims somewhat grandiosely, the ability now to strike the United States mainland with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), but that the missile was apparently fired from a previously unknown launch site.

If there are more such sites, it means that in the event of a retaliatory or pre-emptive strike by Pyongyang against, say, Seoul or Tokyo, shooting down those missile could not happen until they were in the air. By then, it would be probably too late to save hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of lives in those cities, even if the THAAD anti-missile shield works — and THAAD will not protect against conventional shelling; Seoul being in range of North Korean artillery.

The event that most likely would trigger such strikes is, of course, a military attack on North Korea ordered by US President Donald Trump. That is an option that is becoming more not less likely.

We know that the US military has been asked by the White House to prepare a plan for that, should it be needed.  Since Friday’s ICBM test, Pyongyang’s second in three weeks, two US Air Force bombers have flown over South Korea, accompanied first by Japanese and then South Korean fighters, in what is taken as a show of strength by the US and its allies. The bombers passed within 50 miles of the Demilitarised Zone border to the north. The United States has also conducted as successful THAAD test in Alaska, the currently realistic reach of North Korean missiles.

That Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, have turned to browbeating China for not reining in North Korea is probably best read as a sign of increasing desperation on the part of the Americans who are edging towards an action that, in the end, they will not want to take.

However, the status quo, while fraught with danger as brinksmanship always is, is preferable to military conflict. Now Pyongyang has nuclear weapons, disarming it is no longer a policy option. Managing that capability in a way that conforms to international norms is the only way forward, and that will have to be done around the negotiating table.

Economic sticks and carrots have had little to no success to date. Pyongyang has rebuffed previous suggestions along those lines and has done nothing to dismiss the notion that it puts regime survival ahead of the famine of its people.

Without nuclear weapons, Kim Jong Un, like his father, believes his dynasty could go the way of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar al-Qadhafi.

This is also why six rounds of UN-led international sanctions since 2006 have had so little effect.

Beijing understands the point. It does not care much for Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, and younger Chinese diplomats express disdain for a regime stuck in a Communist world they barely recognise. However, Beijing’s priority is to avoid regime collapse. That would send millions of refugees into northeastern China, likely trigger a civil war possibly requiring Chinese military intervention, and, in the worst outcome of all, leave a US-friendly regime hard against its border.

For all Washington’s attempts to twist Beijing’s arm to make it participate more actively in the sanctions regime, these efforts will yield little beyond what has been achieved so far and thus have little impact on North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.

For all Trump’s belligerence towards North Korea, the most likely eventual outcome is not denuclearization through force or negotiation, but acceptance that North Korea is a nuclear power and that a freeze in the further development of its nuclear and missile capabilities is the best that can be achieved.

It will though take a long time and probably many scares before we get there.

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