Tag Archives: Kim Jong Un

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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Mr Kim Goes To Beijing, Or Not

North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, wants to make a state visit to Beijing. He has reportedly asked to be invited around the same time as China will be making its own leadership transition. The world’s youngest head of state is hoping for a halo effect, no doubt. The request was conveyed by  Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in the course of his visit to Beijing last week. This Bystander suspects that Jang didn’t return home bearing a gilt-edged engraved invitation card for his nephew from President Hu Jintao.

The lack of enthusiasm is understandable, even setting aside the question of timing. China wants Kim to pursue economic opening, both as a means to avert an economic collapse of the reclusive and impoverished state, and as a way to access the country’s mineral resources, though that, like the special economic zones that have been jointly set up, are so far more promise than reality. The bigger impediment is Beijing’s displeasure at Kim’s enthusiasm for nuclear  and missile tests. It sees these as an unnecessary international provocation. Nor is it thrilled by the prospect of having a nuclear armed neighbor that has a history of behavior almost as reliable as its missiles. Pyongyang may see its nuclear threat as its only card in the diplomatic game with Washington. China has a better hand and is playing a more complex game.

So far Beijing’s foreign ministry is saying nothing, but then it is the Party not the government that handles relations with Pyongyang. Its young guns don’t see themselves as having much in common with the 20s-something third-generation despot. They are serious players on the world stage, not tin-pot dictators. Nor is their China the China of their grandfathers’ generation, which stood shoulder to shoulder with Kim’s grandfather in the Korean War. If Kim’s North Korea has changed in the ensuing half century and more,  it is, if anything, only for the worse.

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Mrs Kim Revealed

This photo released on July 25, 2012 by KCNA, State media of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), shows Kim Jong Un, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju, inspects an amusement park in Pyongyang, capital of DPRK. The official KCNA news agency confirmed Wednesday that top leader Kim Jong Un has been married. (Xinhua/KCNA)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s mystery woman is his wife. That would be the wife the rest of the world didn’t know about until North Korean state media confirmed it on July 25th in a report about the couple attending the opening of an amusement park (above). She is Ri Sol Ju. It is not known when the couple married, or if Ri is the North Korean singer of the same name. Or related to Ri Yong Ho, the  army’s chief of general staff and the most senior political figure in the military until he was ousted earlier this month as Kim tightened his grip on power.

There has been intense speculation about the identity of the woman who was first shown to the world on  July 6 sitting next to Kim at a concert in Pyongyang. Ri is now thought to be the 27-year old daughter of a professor and an obstetrician from Chongjin in northeast North Korea, and who is herself a science graduate of the elite Kim Il-sung University. South Korean analysts have suggested that Kim and Ri married in 2009 and have a child, born in 2010. But that is as much speculation as is the discussion of the implications of Ri’s Western dress and hairstyle.

China’s state media have restricted themselves to noting that “South Korean observers say that the recent appearances of the two were meant to cultivate a new image of the DPRK leader and demonstrate the stability of the country”. Note, too, in the picture above, some younger faces and sharper suits than are usually to be found in photographs of Kims published by North Korean state media.

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