Category Archives: China-Koreas

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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North Korea: Trade, Opportunity And Russia

Rajin Port, North Korea, 2011. Photo credit: Laika ac. Licenced under Creative Commons.

EVEN WITH UN trade sanctions against North Korea in place, China’s trade with North Korea rose 15% in the first five months of this year to just over $2 billion, according to customs data.

China is certainly buying less from North Korea, principally because it suspended coal purchases in February in response to North Korea’s fifth nuclear test in defiance of UN demands. However, it is still importing iron ore.

In the other direction, more Chinese oil (up 18% year-on-year) and goods, notably telephone equipment, textiles, soybean oil and vehicles, are flowing into North Korea.

The first-quarter data, which show a 37.4% rise in total trade, has drawn the predictable irascible tweet from US President Donald Trump, whose administration is showing signs of increasing frustration with Beijing’s attempts to be cooperative in reining in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

The debate is intensifying in Washington over how honest an ‘honest broker’ Beijing is over North Korea. Is it, too, as frustrated with Pyongyang as its public statements suggest? Or is it less than neutral, still supporting Kim Jong-un’s regime to greater or lesser extent.

The darker conspiracists in Washington believe Beijing is ‘running’ North Korea with the end of keeping the peninsula on the brink of instability to keep US regional allies diverted from China issues while making China, as North Korea’s only ally and main aid donor, the essential partner in any brokered solution that never comes.

This Bystander thinks that a conspiracy theory too far, not least because subcontracting the maintenance of managed instability to the agency of the Kim dynasty seems such a high risk.

More likely, to our mind, China is protecting its red-line position. Beijing does not want the Pyongyang regime to collapse for fear of the outcome being a US-aligned unified Korea on its border, over which an influx of North Korean refugees, possibly starving, will already have poured.

Thus it will lean on Kim, but not heavily enough to topple him. This leaves the United States squeezed between taking direct action — which is everyone’s last resort, though one that Trump may resort to more readily than others — and imposing further sanctions, most likely next targeted at more banks and companies, including Chinese companies, thought to be financing North Korean trade, especially illicit trade.

Remittances by North Koreans working abroad are another potential target. A UN report in 2015 estimated that there were more than 50,000 North Koreans working abroad in mining, logging, textile and construction industries around the world, generating  $2.3 billion a year for the regime.

Which is one of the points where Russia enters the picture. Along with China, Russia is the main employer of North Korean workers. Thirty thousand North Koreans are estimated to work there.

Earlier this month, the Russian ambassador to the UN rejected the United States’ call for new sanctions against North Korea following its latest missile test. Instead, though it supported previous UN sanctions, it repeated China’s calls for restraint on all sides, similarly worried about the risk of instability that could be triggered by a strict sanctions regime.

Washington views the Russian position on North Korea, which is suspects to be opportunistic, sceptically, and as a sanctions busting. Last month, it imposed sanctions on two Russian companies, one for allegedly supplying a North Korean firm involved in the nuclear programme, the other for shipping petroleum products to North Korea.

Russia’s trade with North Korea is minimal: total trade last year was worth $77 million. That is a deceptive figure because much of the trade goes via China. Up to $500 million would be more realistic.

Still relatively tiny (and nothing compared to what it was in Soviet days). However, it jumped in the first quarter of this year, by 85% year-on-year, according to Russia’s customs service. The bulk of this consisted of Russian exports of coal ($26.7 million-worth) and oil ($1.2 million-worth).

Often forgotten, there is a railway that runs from the Russian side of the short Russia-North Korea border across the Tumen river to Rajin (seen above in a 2011 photograph), a North Korean port from which Siberian coal is shipped. New port facilities had been built in a joint venture with the South Koreans until they pulled out last year.

Sanctions-busting fuel deliveries to compensate for those lost from China also get through to North Korea clandestinely via this route. North Korean coal reportedly goes in the opposite direction. The line has four rails to accommodate both Russian and Korean gauge rolling stock.

However, the recent spike in Russian exports goes against the trend of falling exports over the previous three years, a trend mirrored by China, as it happens.

Last week, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow, he and his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin said the two countries would co-operate to defuse the North Korean crisis. Russia will not undercut Beijing’s leadership on the issue, but it is steadily inserting itself into the equation and is likely to be opportunistic, adding a further layer of complexity and uncertainty to an already seemingly intractable situation.

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The Sound Of Another Trump Flip-Flop

100 yuan notes

IT IS ALL going rather swimmingly for China with the United States right now. Following the happily smooth summit between President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump in Florida last week, the US president has said that China is not manipulating its currency.

During his election campaign last year, Trump had repeatedly accused Beijing of artificially driving down the value of the yuan to increase its export competitiveness, and had said he would label China as a currency manipulator on his first day in office.

His about-turn pre-empts the US Treasury’s forthcoming biannual report to Congress on the foreign-exchange policy of the United States’ principal trading partners: being designated a currency manipulator by the US Treasury legally triggers US Congressional sanctions against the offending country.

In the Obama-era, the Treasury had always found a way to avoid that, but the risk to China once Trump won the election last November was acute.

Trump now accepts that China has not been manipulating its currency for a while. His need to work with Beijing on dealing with North Korea — regardless of his previous comments that the United States would take unilateral action against Pyongyang if China failed to rein in its neighbour as Washington expected — appears to have helped clarify his vision.

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Beijing’s Pyongyang Puzzle

IT IS UNUSUAL for Beijing to make public what has previously been a private suggestion that the United States stops its annual two-month military exercises with South Korea in exchange for North Korea halting its nuclear and missile programmes.

It is a trade-off that Washington and Seoul have equally publicly rejected, to no one’s very great surprise. But it indicates a growing sense of urgency on Beijing’s part about the situation on the Korean peninsula especially given the policy vacuums in both Washington and Seoul caused by the new Trump administration and the expected imminent impeachment of President Park Geun-hye respectively.

Pyongyang has said that the four missiles it launched earlier this week were a test strike against US bases in Japan. Provocative language. The same day, the first components of the THAAD missile defence system arrived in South Korea — a deployment seen similarly provocatively in Pyongyang but also in Beijing.

Beijing’s denial of reports of retaliatory pressure on South Korean businesses convinces few.

Meanwhile, the shadow of February’s fatal attack on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at Kuala Lumpur airport continues to fall widely. If, as is widely suspected, it was a North Korean hit, and one involving chemical weapons,  then the Trump administration may move to reverse President George W Bush’s 2008 delisting of Pyongyang as a state sponsor of terrorism.

That, in turn, would dash the hopes of the likely next government of South Korea that the Trump administration may be more willing to enter dialogue with North Korea. On the campaign trail, candidate Donald Trump had said he would be prepared to meet Kim Jong-un, though he has not repeated the offer as president.

The next South Korean government, whoever leads it, it likely to return to the ‘sunshine’ policy of greater engagement with North Korea than the current scandal-embroiled one.

Some evidence is now emerging that the Obama administration was quietly taking a harder line against the North than appeared on the the surface, cyberhacking North Korean missile launches last year, with some success, in retaliation for the believed North Korean hacking of Sony Pictures in 2014. 

However, the Trump administration, in the absence of a better shaped policy, has mainly fallen back on browbeating China to do more to rein in its neighbour, a capacity it may not have, or at least to the degree Washington believes. For its part, China, under whose protection Kim Jong-nam had lived in Macau and Beijing, is hopeful that diplomacy can replace stand-off and the unsettling uncertainty that goes with it.

Last month, it suspended coal imports from North Korea until the end of this year, a hefty blow to North Korea’s revenue as it accounts for two-fifths of the country’s export earnings, and the toughest sanctions China has imposed to date. Beijing had previously been using a ‘living-standards’ loophole in the UN sanctions against North Korea to sustain the coal trade despite its formal adherence to them.

That it has now changed its stance on this indicates both the frustration of many Chinese officials at what looks like an increasingly anachronistic ally in Pyongyang and their impotence to do more.

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China Gives North Korea The Coal’d Shoulder

OUR MAN IN Munich, where those who make their living from discussing global security were gathered of late, sends word that foreign minister Wang Yi said there that the cycle of sanctions and missile tests has to stop and North Korea and the United States should return to the negotiating table.

Whether that would be as part of a resumption of the six-party talks or a bilateral meeting was unclear, but Wang said Beijing was ready to play the role of mediator, which leaves either interpretation open.

Yet in the meantime, China is suspending all imports of coal from North Korea until the end of this year. This is as close to compliance with UN sanctions against Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme that one can get. China is North Korea’s primary export market and coal is its biggest single export.

Last week, China was believed to have turned back from Wenzhou a $1 million shipment of  North Korean coal the day after North Korea had tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions banning the country from carrying out such actions.

Suspending imports is the latest tightening by China as coal exports are what Pyongyang relies on to generate cash, particularly since China stopped importing some precious metals almost a year ago and banned the sale of fuel in the opposite direction. North Korean coal exports to China rose more than 12% last year, coming in through a loophole in the UN sanctions that allows imports on which North Koreans depend for their livelihood.

The mysterious death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam by apparent poisoning, if proved to be connected to North Korea as suspected, may have also tested Beijing’s patience beyond endurance.

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How Much Candidate Trump Will President Trump Contain?

Donald Trump seen in Washington, November 2011. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. Licenced under Creative Commons

THE U.S.PRESIDENT-ELECT, Donald Trump (above), had few kind words for China during the presidential election campaign. He accused it of stealing millions of American manufacturing jobs and threatened protectionist tariffs against Chinese exports.

Yet to China he was the preferable candidate. His Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, was seen, on the basis of having been seen at close quarters as U.S. secretary of state, to be no bosom buddy of Beijing.

The maverick nature of Trump’s campaign and his questioning of the basis of the United States’ traditional security alliances had, however, caused some optimism in Beijing that his election would weaken America’s international standing in the region and that his reservations about free-trade agreements would kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the economic prop of Washington’s ‘Asian pivot’.

However, set against that the uncertainty and volatility in regional affairs that a prospective Trump presidency will bring, in particular on the Korean peninsula. Beijing does not like uncertainty, and there less than anywhere.

Worse, long-cultivated contacts with the Washington China-policy and financial elite have been rendered for nought by the imminent arrival of a US president who at 70 has never held elected office and so has no track record, no known team and no known thought-through China strategy. Beijing also has reason to fear that Trump’s victory will put at risk the forces of globalisation that have propelled China’s economic and thus global ascendency.

It is unrealistic to expect that a Trump administration can repatriate low-wage manufacturing jobs. Those that automation and technology have not rendered redundant are already going to Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia if they are going anywhere as China ‘rebalances’. Moreover, China is only one aspect of the economic trends that are transforming the US economy in a way that leaves so many Americans, especially older, white ones, feeling left behind, a sentiment Trump so expertly tapped during his election campaign.

That is not to say that Beijing will not try to score points against electoral democracy, though it will not want to examine too closely the insurgence of rank-and-file voters against a ruling political class. Beijing is also unlikely to pass the opportunity to take an early measure of the next US president, probably by being more assertive in the South China Sea.

That, though, is a double-edged sword. It risks prodding Trump in the direction of politicising the issue rather than contesting it on legalistic grounds — such as through asserting freedom of navigation rights and using the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. That approach, adopted by the Obama administration, has given Beijing scope to build its presence in the South China Sea with a lessened risk of direct US military confrontation.

Beijing’s scope for action now will also be tempered by the reactions of other regional nations to Trump’s election victory. Japan, for one, may see an opportunity to fill a potential vacuum both by building up its military capabilities and by being more active with its development aid and investment in the region. The Asian Development Bank, which falls under its sway, easily outguns the Beijing-created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

South Korea, too, may end up with nuclear weapons from a Trump administration, a development that would be unwelcome in Beijing, not least because it ups the nuclear stakes on the peninsula, elevating the risk of instability that Beijing so abhors.

Further south, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are all calculating where their strategic interests lie between China and the United States.

There has been a quiet (pace the Philippines new president Rodrigo Duterte) shift of emphasis towards developing stronger economic links with China while retaining Washington’s security umbrella. That shift will be being recalibrated in the light of candidate Trump’s criticism that US security partners are ‘free-loading’.

He is not the first US president to have made that complaint, but few have suggested that the US will take its umbrella away if its regional allies do not contribute their fair share to the costs.

Whether President Trump will take the same view as candidate Trump on this and all the other issues that touch on China is probably as much of a guess in Beijing as it is in the rest of the region, and even possibly, at this point, in Washington.

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