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At a time of rapidly escalating tension on the Korean Peninsular observers are questioning whether China has begun to apply more pressure behind the scenes on the leadership in Pyongyang .
DPRK has accused President Trump of raising tensions in the region and warned that the regime would conduct a nuclear test when it sees fit, as China issued a plea to Washington not to use pre-emptive military action.
In an interview with the Associated Press in Pyongyang on 14 April, DPRK’s vice-foreign minister, Han Song-ryol said Trump’s “aggressive” tweets aimed at the regime were “causing trouble”, adding that the mounting crisis on the peninsula was now locked in a “vicious cycle”.
Han warned that DPRK would not “keep its arms crossed” in the event of a U.S. pre-emptive strike.
For its part, China issued a plea against military action in North Korea before an anticipated sixth nuclear test on 15 April to mark the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung.
Speaking in Beijing, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said a return to the negotiating table was the only way to avert a crisis. “Military force cannot resolve the issue,” he said, according to Reuters. “Whoever provokes the situation, whoever continues to make trouble in this place, they will have to assume historical responsibility.”
So what are the signs suggesting that China is more actively working to put presure on the leadership in DPRK?
On 18 February, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce announced the suspension of coal imports for the remainder of 2017. In subsequent press briefings, senior Chinese officials have explained that China’s coal imports from DPRK were by mid-February close to the quota stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 2321.
In a compelling 38 North article published on 5 April, Yun Sun argues that, rather than China acting to fulfill its UN obligations as the official Beijing explanation suggests, an analysis of publicly available customs data on Chinese coal imports during the first months of 2017 suggests a different story.
Assuming the data is correct, his analysis points to an “intriguing fact that [China’s] Ministry of Foreign Affairs and [its] Ministry of Commerce were not honest about China nearing the upper limits on North Korean coal imports set by the UNSCR 2321, since 2.67 million tons and 219 million USD are well below these limits.”
Sun Yun concludes from this that “[u]nless China has other sources of coal imports from North Korea that were not accounted for in the customs data, China unilaterally adopted punitive measures on North Korea that were not required by the UN Security Council Resolution.”
He offers two possible explanations for China’s decision to impose such a radical measure on DPRK.
First of all, two events occurred a week before the announcement of the ban “that almost certainly aroused Chinese ire with Pyongyang”:
- North Korea’s test of a Pukguksong-2 intermediate-range ballistic missile on 11 February; and
- the assassination on 13 February of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam, who had been under Chinese protection.
He notes that “both events gave Beijing ample reasons to put more pressure on North Korea to rein in its provocative behavior.”
Second, the Chinese may have wanted to send a conciliatory signal to Washington in advance of the April 2017 summit between President Xi and President Trump, given Chinese concern over U.S.-China relations under President Trump.
The author observes that “Beijing has wanted to sweeten the pot with Trump in order to induce a friendlier U.S. policy toward China and solidify a quid-pro-quo, transactional approach on key issues important to both sides. Since the Trump administration has identified North Korea as a key national security threat, it is reasonable to infer that China’s action on North Korean coal imports was aimed at heading off harsher U.S. demands for stronger Chinese sanctions against North Korea.
“Considering the U.S.-China tensions that will form the backdrop for the summit between President Xi and Trump, Xi’s ability to show that it is punishing Pyongyang severely on coal imports could help to lower tensions with the United States and pre-empt U.S. demands on North Korea that China cannot accept, such as cutting Chinese energy and food aid.”
Whatever those U.S. demands might be, the author of the 38 North article reminds us of an important Chinese ‘red line’ as far as its relations with DPRK are concerned; “China will not go so far as to trade North Korea with U.S. for a positive China policy by Trump.” He added “[i]n fact, it is hard to imagine what [the] U.S. can offer for such a trade. However, taking some heat off the potential demands by the U.S. may well be China’s calculation.”
A recent posting on this blog looked at Andrei Lankov’s review of the slow progress made in 2015 by North Korea’s cautious reforms. Since then there has been a report that authorities in North Korea’s Yanggang Province executed five residents in September 2015 for aiding the escape of others from the country.
The report describes how “[t]hey’re building walls and fences along the border, but the number of people escaping hasn’t really dropped neither has those who are helping them. So the execution was to try to set an example.”
That is probably no surprise to Lankov who noted in his review that “there has been a further increase in Sino–North Korean border security, making border crossings even more risky, unless one is willing to pay an increasingly steep bribe to guards.” In what may be a wider security clamp down he added that there have also “been campaigns against Chinese mobile phones that allow a small number of North Koreans — largely traders, smugglers and border-crossing brokers — to communicate with China and the outside world almost freely. Now, such mobile phones are considered to be spying equipment…. Attempts have been made by North Korean authorities to crack down on the spread of foreign videos, with renewed inspections of homes.”
Lankov concluded his review, saying “The year 2015 has been another year of stuttering reform without openness. Though, on balance, this seems to have been rather good news for the average North Korean.” Had he written his review a few weeks later he might have added “except for those unlucky five citizens in Yanggang Province.”