Tag Archives: Kim Jong Un

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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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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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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Beijing Struggles To Rein In Pyongyang

NORTH KOREA’S LATEST nuclear test further undermines the argument that only Beijing can rein in Pyongyang but won’t do so. China’s ability to direct Kim Jong Un is diminishing as quickly as it is losing patience with his regime.

It is not alone in that. Kim has shown himself to be undeterred by international sanctions against his rapidly progressing nuclear programme — to which the latest and harshest Beijing has signed up.

China wants stability in the region and a buffer it can rely on between it and U.S.-aligned South Korea. Kim’s hell-for-leather pursuit of nuclear arms makes the region less not more stable, and Kim feels that he can disregard China’s national security interests with impunity for as long as U.S.-China relations are tense. 

He felt sufficiently secure of his position to test fire three ballistic missiles during the G20 summit that China was hosting in Hangzhou at the start of this month, much to the fury of Beijing which was otherwise basking in playing the role of world leader and was notified of the test through back channels only a few hours in advance.

For a long time, Pyongyang’s unpredictability has been supported by Beijing as a way to keep Washington on the back foot in the region. Now that is outweighed by the risk to Beijing that a nuclear-armed North Korea would lead to a nuclear-armed South Korea and Japan, and that being the sole ally to an archaic remnant of the Cold War only undercuts China’s international standing as a modern world power.

So Beijing’s calculus is changing. Its endorsement of the tough UN sanctions passed in March following Pyongyang’s previous nuclear test was a sign of that. Beijing had been lukewarm to previous sanctions rounds, and uneven in their enforcement. Even though that was a stance to which it seemed to be returning after South Korea decided in July to deploy the United States’ THAAD anti-missile system that China sees directed more at it than North Korea, Beijing’s condemnation of the latest nuclear test was harsh. 

However, if, as seems the case, Kim is using his pursuit of making North Korea a nuclear state central to cement his dynastic legitimacy, then halting nuclearisation can only come from regime change. Sticks and carrots from China, or the international community more broadly, will not induce a change of course on Kim’s part. They have certainly not shown any sign to date that they will.

Regime change in North Korea will most likely come from economic collapse that causes elites to contest diminishing economic resources. That shows no sign of happening soon of its own accord.

China could precipitate it. North Korea is dependent on imports from China of energy and food, so Beijing has the means to act.

But engineering economic collapse is the ‘nuclear option’, so to speak. It would bring a large-scale influx of refugees into northeastern China. Beijing has contingency plans for dealing with that eventuality (they were leaked to Japanese media in 2014), just as South Korea does.

What is not known is what preparations China is making to take control of an imploded North in what would be a scramble to beat the United States and South Korea in the rush to provide humanitarian aid and security for the peninsula as a whole in the name of reunification.

South Korea does have contingency plans to move troops into the North fast. If they were to run into the Peoples’ Liberation Army forces coming in the opposite direction, North Korea could become as chaotic as the Middle East, especially if remnants of Kim’s regime undertake guerrilla warfare, or China was to afford political protection to them.

In the meantime, Beijing is becoming as stymied as Washington in dealing with Pyongyang, and left scratching its head for a way to remove the Kim dynasty that throws the North into neither chaos nor the hands of the South. That it is saying publicly that it is the responsibility of the United States not itself to solve the problem, is a sign of how far from a Plan B it is.

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Xi, Park And Abe: Neighbours Who Have To Get Along

PRESIDENT XI JINPING and his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun-hye, chose an opportune moment to announce their two nations would hold a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Date and location are to be determined but Seoul in October or November this year is likely. Prime Minister Li Keqiang would probably attend for China.

The backdrop to the announcement was the parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War, or the Second World War in Asia as it is known in the rest of the world. That let both Xi and Park point up their anti-Japanese credentials with domestic audiences, while still setting out to resume the trilateral summits that had occurred until 2012 when Chinese-Japanese relations took a decided turn for the worse over territorial claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Such a resumption serves to reassure both Beijing, that it is not being ganged up upon by two U.S. allies and Washington that one of its allies isn’t moving closer to the Chinese camp. This Bystander does not expect the meeting to yield any concrete results beyond a commitment from all parties to hold the summits annually. A mooted trilateral free-trade agreement remains a distant prospect.

Two other aspects of Park’s visit to Beijing caught this Bystander’s eye. One was her choice of a striking yellow jacket for her appearance at the Beijing parade, where she flanked Xi with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the other side. Yellow was the emperor’s colour in imperial times and retains a superior status to other colors to this day.

Second was her expression of gratitude to Beijing for its “constructive role in defusing recent tensions on the Korean peninsula.” This, we understand, was sending a PLA mechanized brigade close to the border, a strong signal to Pyongyang to quieten down.

One thing that did not catch this Bystander’s eye at the parade was Kim Jong Un. He has still to visit China since becoming North Korea’s leader.

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Drought Diplomacy In North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits Farm No. 1116, under KPA (Korean People's Army) Unit 810, in this undated file photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on June 1, 2015. KCNA

CORN AS HIGH as Kim Jong Un’s thigh. That, at least, is what the picture above released by North Korea state media on June 1 shows.

The reality is likely to be different.

The isolated regime is suffering its worst drought in a century — probably its fourth ‘worse drought in a century’ of the past decade. Pyongyang’s news agency, KCNA, reported last week that paddies in the main rice-farming provinces of Hwanghae and Phyongan were drying up for lack of rain. Food supplies, never plentiful, are now at risk of falling — again — to the level of famine.

The devastation wreaked on the economy by the drought s compounded by the fact that 50% of the country’s electricity is generated by hydropower. Reports finding their way to this Bystander suggest that most parts of the economy are already feeling the effect of power shortages.

North Korea was hit by severe and fatal famine in the 1990s and relied on international food aid to get through. However, Pyongyang’s suspicion of humanitarian workers and reluctance to allow independent monitoring of food distribution, makes international agencies reluctant donors.

Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are arguable at their lowest ebb. China even rebuffed North Korea’s putative interest in joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Nonetheless, China’s foreign ministry said last week that the country was willing to help its drought-stricken erstwhile ally avoid a humanitarian disaster.

One set of questions is what price, if any, Beijing can extract from Pyongyang in return over its controversial nuclear program, and whether Pyongyang is ready to grasp an excuse providently offered to it by nature as an opportunity to back down from the nuclear tests and missile launches that have brought international sanctions down on it.

Another is whether Pyongyang can get food aid from Russia or Cuba, both places recently visited by senior North Korean officials, as an alternative to China, and even whether the regime is over-egging the pudding in regard to the severity of the drought. Last year, according to North Korea’s news agency, food production increased by 48,700 tons compared to 2013 — regardless of reports of severe drought.

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Trade Drives Shifting Alignments Of Northeast Asia

LET US LOOK at President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul and Japan’s embryonic rapprochement with Pyongyang in the hard light of commerce. To this Bystander, it is that more than politics that is reshaping the alignments of the region.

China has been South Korea’s leading trade partner for the past decade. It now accounts for a quarter of South Korea’s trade, and a larger share than that of the U.S. and Japan combined. China-South Korea trade will if anything grow, as a result of a forthcoming free trade agreement between the two countries and a new agreement to make more yuan and won directly convertible.

In raw numbers, China-South Korea trade is more than 40 times greater than China’s trade with North Korea, $247 billion vs. $6.6 billion, even though the latter has trebled since 2007 as Beijing has sought to ease Kim Jong Un’s regime back from the brink of Beijing’s nightmare — an economic collapse of the North triggering a flood of refugees across the border into Jilin and Liaoning provinces.

A new generation of leaders in Beijing views Pyongyang differently than its predecessors. More than half a century on from the end of the Korean War, unwavering support of comrades-in-arms just seems outdated and especially now China, South Korea and Japan have become economic powers in their own right. Beijing wants to distance itself from Pyongyang, though not by so much it allows room for Tokyo and increasingly Moscow to step in. It is telling that Xi’s recent visit to Seoul was his fifth meeting with his strongly pro-U.S. South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye since becoming president though he has yet to visit Pyongyang.

Japan’s latest promise to ease some minor sanctions against North Korea in return for Pyongyang re-investigating abductions of Japanese nationals by North Koreans in the 1970s and 1980s is a sign of how Tokyo is working the new folds in the regional landscape. Continuing concerns about Pyongyang’s nuclear programme in the unpredictable hands of Kim Jong Un will limit how far Tokyo will want to carry its rapprochement, and Washington won’t let it go too far for the same reason.

The North’s nuclear ambitions remain the elephant in the room for China, too. Xi is unlikely to push Kim as hard on this as Park would like. In Seoul, he avoided any sign of support for Park’s criticism of the programme and stuck to Beijing’s line of calling for the denuclearization of the peninsula.

Nor will the U.S. want relations between one of its two main Asian allies and China to become too cosy. On that front, it will take some comfort in the fact that Park rejected Xi’s proposal of a joint celebration of next year’s 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan at the end of World War II. Every leader in the region has a middle against which he or she needs to play two ends. In contrast to the dangerous eddies of northeast Asian geopolitics, the course of commerce runs swiftly and truer.

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