Category Archives: China-Koreas

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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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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