Tag Archives: North Korea

China Is Back In The Korea Game

China’s President Xi Jinping (right) greets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during Kim’s visit to China from March 25 to 28. Photo credit: Xinhua/Ju Peng.

THIS BYSTANDER WAS was reminded this week that it was then South Korean president Park Geun-hye who was invited to the grand military parade in Tiananmen Square in 2015, not neighbouring North Korea’s still newish leader Kim Jong-un. Beijing considered North Korea an anachronistic problem state, and except for the oldest generations of Party cadres, held it in disdain.

Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang remained cold to the point that by last November, China was enforcing international sanctions against North Korea’s missile and nuclear programme with a severity never before applied. As China accounts for 90% of North Korea’s trade, that hurt.

US President Donald Trump’s bellicosity towards Kim (and vice versa) then gave cause for China to patch up its relations with North Korea. The prospect of a US military strike against North Korea threatened not one but two of China’s red lines — no regime collapse in North Korea that would send millions of refugees flooding into northern China and no US or US-aligned troops up against its borders.

When in May, Trump boldly accepted an invitation from Kim for direct talks, temporarily sidelining China from what had long been six-party discussions over the peninsula’s future, Beijing swung into action, seeing the gains in influence it had made in the region, in part as a result of the Trump administration’s broader regional disengagement, being at risk.

Kim left his country for the first time, taking his armoured train to Beijing, where President Xi Jinping accorded him full pomp and ceremony. As the Kim-Trump summit in Singapore on June 12 approaches, Kim has been back to Beijing. There were close discussions before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang in April and again earlier this month and North Korean delegations are in Beijing in number.

China is clearly signalling that Kim will not go into the meeting with Trump alone; he still has a powerful friend in China.

Beijing will also undoubtedly have been coaching Kim on dealing with Trump in person. Beijing is finally getting a handle on the mano-a-mano dynamics of US foreign policy under the Trump administration (learning now starting to be seen to good effect in the US-China trade dispute, too).

Beijing will also be doing what it can to ensure that any deal Trump and Kim strike is acceptable to it. It will not necessarily want to position itself as the guarantor of an agreement ensuring the security of the Kim regime in return for whatever ‘denuclearisation’ Kim and Trump agree on, but it will want any deal internationally embedded. Ideally, it would like a six-party treaty signed off at an international level and enshrined at the UN.

It is unlikely to get all that but will be satisfied by a deal that gets the Korean question sorted out, or at least contained for a generation in so far as that means stability on the peninsula. A cardinal principle of its foreign policy is not to have more than one troubled front on its borders at any time.

To that end, it has also been warming relations with Japan, primarily, and India.

Full denuclearisation is less of a priority for China than it is for the United States. The crunch question is not about dismantling the North’s nuclear weapon building capacity but whether or not there will be some capacity for North Korea to retain what is already has.

The Trump administration will try to get Kim to agree to remove as many nuclear weapons as possible as quickly as possible. However, Kim will push actively to keep some warheads.

The deal will thus likely be a thin one, with North Korea keeping some of its nuclear capacity for some time but not expanding it, and accepting international inspections for verification of compliance.

The other factor in play is sanctions, which Kim will want lifting (or at the very least for China to stop enforcing). He will, though, have to make concessions on exporting cyber terror and weapons technology.

Kim is now politically secure at home and can turn to prioritising economic development, though he has not entirely quashed domestic opposition to this.

Beijing has a strategic interest in his primary partner being China, not South Korea. Stability, not reunification (South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s objective) is what Beijing wants to see on the Korean peninsula.

There is plenty of risk to all sides in the Trump-Kim summit. Trump is unpredictable, and Kim is an unknown quantity in such a setting. However, both men have invested a lot in getting a deal — any deal. Beijing is now doing what it can to make sure it is not a bad deal but also one that would enable North Korea to be integrated into Chinese-led regional structures more efficiently.

A failure of the talks would be the least welcome outcome. In that event, Trump would most likely resume his bellicosity and resort to US military action. China and North Korea have a mutual defence pact that runs until 2021, so theoretically Beijing would have to come to Pyongyang’s aid if Washington attacked. It is highly unlikely in practice that it would.

However, it could also play into Beijing’s hands if a breakdown in talks further damaged US credibility in Asia, opening more space for Beijing’s plans for security and economic partnerships in the region. There is opportunity as well as risk for Beijing in the outcome of the Singapore summit.

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Breakthrough Or Blunder, Trump-Kim Talks Trouble China

Composite image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (left) and US President Donald Trump.

CHINA HAS LONG held that talks are the only way to de-escalate tensions between North Korea and the United States. It now has talks — or at least the promise of them — following US President Donald Trump’s surprise acceptance of an offer to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by May for a face-to-face discussion on denuclearization.

The White House confirmed the talks, as it does, by Twitter.

The downside of this development for Beijing is that it will not be at the table (unless by some chance it manages to host the talks), at least initially.

Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang made the right supportive noises about ‘dialogue and discussion’ in response to the announcement in Washington by the South Korean officials who had recently met Kim in Pyongyang. However, it did not escape this Bystander’s notice that he also slipped in a call to start multilateral meetings to advance the process of peacefully resolving the Korean nuclear issue, and that China would continue to make efforts on this.

Beijing will, of course, welcome the sudden prospect of diplomacy after months of belligerent invective between ‘the Dotard’ and ‘Little Rocket Man’. It will also be conscious that that diplomacy may be short-lived; it is difficult to be certain of Kim’s motives, and the history of arms control negotiations involving Pyongyang argues for caution about possible outcomes.

The previous attempt to get Pyongyang to disarm by negotiation was the Six-Party Talks involving the two Koreas, China, Russia, the United States and Japan that followed North Korea’s first nuclear weapons test in 2006. The deal on the table was that Pyongyang would shut down its nuclear and programme in exchange for aid and sanctions lifting. However, what could not be agreed was how to verify the North’s compliance. The talks broke down in 2008. Pyongyang resumed nuclear testing the following year, and Beijing signed on for the first time to sanctions against North Korea.

This time around, Beijing perhaps as much as Washington will be wary that Kim is again just buying time. And its red line remains no North Korean regime collapse that ends up with US or US-allied forces on its border.

The risks in bilateral talks between North Korea and the United States, should they turn out well (at this point a long shot, to our mind), is that North and South collectively end up more aligned with the United States and less with China, providing Washington leverage to use North Korea as a strategic balancing power in the region, a role that would give Kim some of the aggrandisement he craves.

The Global Times, a voicepiece on international affairs for the Party, noted that “as a major power, it is unnecessary for China to worry about North Korea ‘turning to the US’” — a comment that suggests Beijing is worried about just that.

Talks driven by Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington sideline Beijing, not a comfortable position for ‘a major power’.

Perhaps the best analogy for the latest developments is a chess match. Kim has just made an audacious move, which he will have thought through carefully. Trump has responded instinctively. We do not yet know if one or both men have played the breakthrough winning move or have blundered badly.

If Trump comes to feel he has been deceived or belittled, he will likely retaliate punitively. And that may be the worst outcome from Beijing’s perspective of a match at which, for now at least, it is on the sidelines.

For one, it would test Beijing’s commitment to implementing its 1961 Friendship treaty with the North that obliges it to intervene on Pyongyang’s side in the event of military ‘aggression’.

While we have been here before with the Six-Party Talks, what may different this time is that the North now has nuclear weapons that can reach the mainland United States. Historically, after they have acquired a nuclear arsenal, ‘rogue’ nuclear states, move onto legitimising their nuclear status and then finally to casting off the sanctions they incurred along the way.

If Kim is preparing to take the second step and Trump thinks he is stopping Kim from taking the first, where does that leave Beijing?

Arguably it still maintains the most leverage of any of the involved parties over its neighbour. But how can it use that to broker a compromise that provides the regional stability that it most desires within a multilateral framework to deliver it in which it can play a leading role when it is not in the room?

In that regard, much may turn on the personal relationship between Trump and President Xi Jinping, who again talked on the phone on Friday with Xi nudging Trump to develop bilateral talks with Kim into multilateral ones.

As we have noted before, 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 — and now both those wild cards are going to sit down together.

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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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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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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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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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