While, at the end of 2017, we can see a relative warming in the relations between Beijing and Seoul, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have also entered an interesting phase – a phase which could be described as a tactical cooling, although as yet it is not clear whether this phase has finished.
To start with official events: In summer and autumn 2017 various tentative meetings took place. On 6 August 2017, in the course of bilateral talks, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi strictly warned North Korea against any new provocations.
Following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on 3 September 2017, which many experts, including the present author, considered to be ill-timed, China has adopted a stricter position. According to South Korean media reports, in the emergency session of the UN Security Council which took place on 4 September, immediately after the nuclear test, China’s permanent Representative to the United Nations, Liu Jieyi, used the word ‘condemnation’ for the first time referring to North Korea. China previously used a more moderate expression: “firm remonstrance”. What is more, in the course of the session of the UN Security Council in which Resolution No. 2375 was adopted, Liu Jieyi declared that the government of the People’s Republic of China was categorically opposed to any such actions by Pyongyang.
Shortly after that, it was rumored that the Chinese had failed to congratulate the North Korean leadership on the anniversary of the foundation of the DPRK on 9 September. According to other reports, the congratulations were so full of criticisms that N. Korea simply decided not to broadcast them.
On 18 September Donald Trump and Xi Jinping discussed the situation relating to the Korean Peninsula on the telephone. According to the White House Press Secretary, they discussed Pyongyang’s ‘total disregard’ for the opinions of the international community and both leaders declared that they were determined to increase pressure on the DPRK as much as possible, including passing a UN Security Council resolution. On the same day the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi and the UN Secretary General António Guterres held a meeting in New York in which they discussed ways in which the North Korean nuclear issue could be resolved peacefully.
In the USA this was interpreted as ‘China has yielded’ but on 29 September, Lu Kang, official spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, called on the USA to carry out its obligations concerning the restoration of nuclear dialogue with North Korea: ‘The United States has made many declarations about its determination to abide by its obligations (concerning the restoration of peaceful dialogue with the DPRK as part of the multi-party efforts of the UN Security Council), and we hope these will be put into practice.’
In the meantime Kim Jong-un chose not to aggravate the diplomatic crisis, and congratulated Xi Jinping on the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which took place from 18—24 October 2017. In his answering telegram Mr. Xi expressed ‘sincere gratitude to the Central Committee of the WPK and to Comrade Chairman of the WPK’ and his hope that ‘in this new situation the Chinese side will make efforts with the DPRK to promote relations between the two parties and the two countries to a sustainable soundness and stable development’ and also that they should make a ‘positive contribution to ensuring the happiness of the peoples of both countries, the protection of peace and of stability in the region, and common prosperity.’ The Chinese leader expressed his hope that the Korean people would ‘continually achieve new successes in the great project of building socialism.’
The South Korean media focused on the phrases ‘in this new situation’ and ‘peace and stability in the region’ and ‘common prosperity’ , interpreting these as indicating that Beijing intends to play an active role in changing the situation relating to the Korean Peninsula.
On 17 November 2017 г. Song Tao, the head of the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China arrived in Pyongyang on a four-day visit as a special representative of the head of the Chinese Communist Party, to ‘inform the North Korean leadership of the results of the recent 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, and present a gift to Kim Jong-un.’ This was the first official visit to the DPRK by a high-ranging Chinese civil servant since 2015, when Liu Yunshan, the First Secretary of the Central Secretariat of the Chinese Communist Party, visited Pyongyang. The two sides were expected to discuss the nuclear issue, and that the special envoy’s visit would mark the beginning of a series of active steps by China’s representatives to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue. However, the negotiations with North Korea did not take place, and, in the opinion of the Japanese newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the problem was that Song Tao’s political rank was lower than that of China’s previous envoys. Song Tao was only able to meet people with an equivalent rank to his own, -that is, with deputies to the chairman of the KWP, Choe Ryong-hae and Ri Su-yong. It is true that Ri Su-yong is in effect in charge of the country’s foreign policy, while Choe Ryong-hae is one of the top five politicians in the DPRK, and is Kim Jong-un’s deputy in charge of Party matters, a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the KWP’s Central Committee, and vice-President of the DPRK State Council.
There are reports that the two parties discussed the political situation in the Korean Peninsula, but the content of these discussions has not been disclosed, resulting in various speculations, including in the Chinese press. The Chinese weekly the Global Times expressed a cautious opinion – that it is not advisable to expect too much from the visit. The Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post pointed out that the visit was based on the logic that there must be no deterioration in relations between the two countries.
Against that background let us look at the carefully planted fake story that appeared at the end of October 2017 and was reported in a range of US media. A certain Chong Sho-Hu, supposedly a professor of international relations at Beijing National University, said in a BBC interview that Chairman Xi Jinping is very angry with Kim Zhong-un and that there will be a tough response to the next rocket launch. China is ready to ‘go to war’ with North Korea and tactical plans have even been drawn up for an attack. Chong Sho-Hu states that the friendship between China and the DPRK is over and that Xi Jinping has had enough of Pyongyang’s behavior, although the latter is in a difficult situation: it can either face China’s anger at its continuing nuclear blackmail, or just do nothing, in which case its citizens will once more start dying of hunger. The problem with the story is that the name Chong Sho-Hu just does not sound Chinese and when the present author attempted to find out more about this person on the Internet the ONLY results led back to the same startling interview.
However, it should be noted that the opinion stated in the above article is quite widespread in Chinese academic circles, although the present author would not describe it as a mainstream position. Zhu Feng, the Director of the Institute for International Relations at Nankin University, or Shi Yinhong, Professor of Renmin University of China (the second or third most prestigious university in the country) have both maintained since 2010 that it is not worth supporting the DPRK, that the country is very likely to collapse, and Beijing would not object to North Korea’s being incorporated into South Korea, as long as the reunited state respected China’s national interests (i.e. there should be no US troops on former DPRK territory or territorial claims against China). Both Zhu Feng and Shi Yinhong consider that China would be ready to have discussions with the USA and its allies concerning measures that would need to be agreed in advance of such a possible collapse.Understandably, western commentators often cite this position in their reports:
On 16 November, Geng Shuang, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stated that a ‘dual suspension’ would be the most sensible approach to dealing with the issue and also a ‘first step’ that would be a necessary pre-condition for further negotiations. Almost immediately, however, Katina Adams, a spokeswoman for the US State Department said that it was impossible to accept China’s claim that the Seoul-Washington joint military exercises, which have been held for many years for purely defensive purposes, were comparable to Pyongyang’s rocket and nuclear programs.
In press-conference held jointly with the head of the French Foreign Ministry, in Beijing on 24 November, Wang Yi claimed that the political situation relating to the Korean Peninsula had stabilized, and described three ways in which the DPRK nuclear issue might develop. These are: a return to active negotiations, maintaining stability by continuing a policy of restraint and avoiding any new incidents, in order to create conditions of trust and readiness to make concessions, without which the situation may once more get worse. ‘The experience we have gained in this time has shown us that if both parties take steps towards each other they can create the conditions for agreement, but if there is a lack of understanding then the chances for peace can be lost.’
It is worth noting that Beijing did not unambiguously condemn the rocket launch of 30 November 2017. The war predicted by Chong Sho-Hu did not break out, nor was there a new round of sanctions or harsh statements by world leaders, although in the period before the launch the screws had been well and truly tightened.
Tightening the screws- in the form of UN sanctions -we will return to this subject presently.
On 14 August, in compliance with Resolution No. 2371 of the UN Security Council, directed against North Korea, the Chinese government announced that it had put a total ban on the import of North Korean coal, iron, lead, iron and lead ores, and seafood. The ‘Voice of America’ radio station even reported that on the bridge between the KDPR and the city of Hunchun in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture there are hundreds of parked trucks loaded with frozen crabs, prawns and other seafood from North Korea. They cannot enter China and so their cargoes are spoiling and the traders who have suffered loss as a result are demanding compensation from the government.
Chinese banks have started to block transactions on their North Korean clients’ accounts, as the South China Morning Post has reported. According to that newspaper, branches of the Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Agricultural Bank of China have blocked North Korean citizens from opening accounts or transferring more funds into existing accounts. The newspaper explains that these measures are intended to help major Chinese banks avoid US sanctions.
On 22 September Korean media sources reported that, on the threshold of a three-party summit between South Korea, the USA and Japan, and as a result of the USA’s declaration of new sanctions, including ‘secondary boycotts’, China’s Central Bank has ordered the country’s banks to discontinue all operations with the DPRK and banks have been thoroughly audited to ensure they comply. Various sources claim that the banks have been prevented from providing financial services to new North Korean clients and have been ordered to stop working with existing clients. The banks were instructed to comply with the UN sanctions and were warned of the economic and reputational risks of failing to do so.
During the three-party summit between South Korea, the USA and Japan, the US President, Donald Trump, thanked the Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping for taking these measures.
On 23 September China restricted exports of petroleum products to the DPRK and prohibited the import of North Korean textiles. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, gas condensates and liquefied natural gas deliveries have been stopped, and the prohibition also applies to goods that are already at the border but have not yet gone through customs. On 1 October deliveries of refined petroleum were restricted. It is worth mentioning, by the way, that the ‘main pipeline’ for oil and liquid fuel deliveries at subsidized prices has not yet been closed.
On 28 September a notice appeared on the web site of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, to the effect that businesses -joint enterprises, cooperative entities, and enterprises with foreign capital- which are active in China and which have North Korean participants or investors (whether entities or individuals), should cease their business activities within 120 days from the passing of Resolution No. 2375.
This means that North Koran restaurants in China will have to close down, and North Korean programmers working in a number of Chinese cities will have to leave the country. If we are to believe the Japanese press, since November 2017 three out of the eight North Korean restaurants in the border city of Dandong have already closed and their staff have returned home.
In general, it should be remembered that in accordance with the UN Security Council resolution, the Chinese authorities have stopped allowing migrant workers from the DPRK to enter China. Entrepreneurs using North Korean labor have had it ‘explained’ to them that it would not be advisable for them to renew their North Korean workers’ labor contracts. As a result, if the current trend continues until the end of 2018, the majority of North Korean workers will have left China.
As John Park, a senior academic at Harvard Kennedy School, said in a seminar arranged by the Korean Defense Veterans Association, the tightening of the screws is just a formality. Beijing is looking for ways to lighten the burden. For example, North Korean laborers appear to have been granted student visas, and in this way 40-60 000 of them have been able to stay in China and earn money. John Park also believes that many Chinese tourists are in fact shuttle traders who carry goods across the border.
The government order of 28 September also requires Chinese citizens to close down any joint ventures operating abroad if they have North Korean partners. There is an exception for entities that have been recognized as non-commercial housing and utilities projects, or as enterprises that do not generate any profit, by the North Korea Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council.
That step could have been considered as unilateral sanctions and an attempt to avoid a ‘secondary boycott’: the UN Security Council resolution prohibits the creation of new joint enterprises but says nothing about closing down existing ones.
On the day of Donald Trump’s visit to China, the South Korean press reported that there were restrictions on Chinese tourists travelling to the DPRK. They claim that Chinese tourist firms operating near the border have been instructed to stop selling trips to the DPRK which involve a stay of one or more nights. People are still going on day trips, as before.
On 24 November China announced that the Friendship Bridge over the Yalu River, connecting China and the DPRK, was being closed- by North Korea. Officially, it would be closed for 10 days for essential maintenance work – on the North Korean side.
Air China, the Chinese national airline (since 2008, it has been the only Chinese airline flying to the DPRK) announced that flights from Beijing to Pyongyang would be temporarily discontinued. According to the Reuters press agency, citing a representative of the airline, this is due to ‘commercial problems’ and flights may start again when the market situation changes. Flights were also stopped in winter 2016-17 and started again in March. They also stopped between 14 April and 5 May 2017.
The reasons for this tightening of the screws can be found not just in the DPRK’s ‘irritating’ behavior, but also in Donald Trump’s policies- whether it is his aggressive rhetoric or his desire for a secondary boycott. And since China is more afraid of a war on its borders than it is of North Korea becoming a nuclear power, Beijing has decided to use whatever levers it can to put pressure on North Korea, believing that if sanctions can persuade North Korea to agree to put an end to its rocket and nuclear programs this may, at least, postpone the need for a military solution of the problem.
It should not be assumed that the tightened sanctions will completely cut off all economic contacts between the two countries. It is worth remembering that, according to some reports, China accounts for 92.5 % of the DPRK’s foreign trade. China’s imports of seafood from the DPRK, alone, are worth $300 million a year.
In 2016 China imported goods worth $ 2.634 billion from the DPRK, of which 61.7 % would fall under the new import sanctions. This may lead to a decrease of more than $1.5 billion in imports from the DPRK. On 13 October South Korean media reported, citing Chinese sources, that Chinese imports of North Korean products had fallen by 37.9 %, and Chinese exports to North Korea by 6.7 %, compared with the previous year. According to other data, between January and September 2017 China’s imports from the DPRK were worth $1.48 billion, 16.7 % less than the previous year, and its exports to the DPRK rose by 20.9 % to $2.5 billion.
It should be noted that coal represents a large proportion of North Korea’s exports. In 2016 North Korea processed $1.28 billion worth of coal for export. In August and September 2017 China was still importing coal from the DPRK. According to data published on 26 September by China’s National Bureau of Statistics, 1.637 million tons of coal with a value of $138.14 million were imported in August and 509 000 tons of coal, with a value of $44 million, in September. These figures were reported by the ‘Voice of America’ radio station, which cited data from the Korean Foreign Trade Association. ‘Voice of America’ alleged that although the Chinese authorities claimed on 15 August that they had discontinued all coal imports from North Korea on, in fact the imports were still continuing. In a telephone conversation with the radio station, Anthony Ruggiero, Senior Fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), pointed out that China’s claim did not accord with the reality of the situation, but the Chinese Ministry of Commerce later explained that Resolution No. 2371 provided for a 30-day delay in its implementation, and that China had thus discontinued its imports of North Korean coal as of 5 September. They added that the Chinese customs had simply let through a shipment that had arrived in the port before the beginning of the embargo.
Chinese companies play a dominant role in the processing of North Korean natural resources – its mineral reserves are 14 times greater than South Korea’s and were valued at $ 2.79 trillion by the Yonhap agency. That agency cited a report issued by experts from the Korea Resources Corp, which indicated that Pyongyang had already signed 38 agreements with foreign companies for the mining of minerals ranging from gold and silver to coal. 33 of these agreements (including 10 long-term agreements, ranging from 10 to 50 years) were concluded with Chinese companies, two with French companies, one with a Swiss company, and the others with Japanese companies.
As far as the delivery of petroleum derivatives is concerned (it will be remembered that Resolution 2375 limits exports of refined petroleum to the DPRK to a maximum of 500 000 barrels between 1 October and 31 December 2017 and 2 million barrels a year thereafter), according to the Korean Foreign Trade Association, Chinese exports of refined petroleum to the DPRK in September 2017 totaled $166 106, but were zero in October. However in the same period North Korea received $240 000 of oil derivatives of other types which are not covered by the sanctions- mostly machine oil and lubricant.
As Senator Cory Gardner has pointed out, Beijing and Pyongyang are increasing their cooperation on humanitarian projects that do not fall within the UN sanctions: in the first quarter of 2017 such cooperation increased by 40 %.
A new turn of the screw?
So it would seem that the relationship between China and the DPRK is getting significantly worse, but the reaction to the rocket launch on 29 November 2017 has suggested otherwise. There is a new trend in China’s actions and statements
On 5 December the Choson Ilbo, linking to an article in the Sunday Times, cited Tong Zhao, from the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy: ‘fundamentally different interpretations of the threat and intent behind North Korea’s weapons program’ and as a result they have different strategies.’ Tong Zhao claims that the Chinese leadership will in time accept North Korea as a nuclear power and believes that the USA should follow its example. This is because the situation reached a point where the DPRK can no longer be stopped by force, and Beijing believes that Washington will come to accept this reality. Of course Beijing is not happy with the idea of the DPRK as a nuclear power, but does not wish to risk North Korea collapsing because of the severance of all economic links with China. That would lead to millions of refugees and US forces advancing to China’s border. Tong Zhao, we note, does not believe in provocations by North Korea.
On 6 December 2017 the Jilin Daily newspaper published detailed instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. This caused quite a lot of panic (Jilin Province is on the border with the Korean Peninsula) and a number of articles followed claiming that ‘China is preparing for nuclear war with Korea’, but later the central newspaper the Global Times (Huanqiu Shibao) published an ‘explanatory article’, which can be summarized as follows:
- Tensions are high on the Korean Peninsula and the risk of military conflict is increasing. However, the deterioration of the situation on the peninsula does not mean that war is inevitable. We should not panic, but we should take the necessary measures, including increasing public awareness by means of civil defense programs, especially since other countries, such as South Korea and Japan, have such programs and even include them in the school syllabus, and also carry out drills.
- The authorities are monitoring the situation and are preparing for all possible scenarios, including the worst one.
- If war does break out, North Korea will attack South Korea, and US bases in South Korea, Japan and other parts of the Asia-Pacific region. It is very unlikely that the USA or DPRK would deliberately attack China as they would have no grounds for doing this. If this did happen, China, as a major nuclear power, would react with determination.
- The winter winds generally blow from the north-east, and therefore radioactive fallout would travel towards the south. The only drawback of Jilin Province is its proximity to the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site.
- China is against all military conflict and as a neighbor of the DPRK, must take precautionary measures against any possible developments. The Chinese Communist Party and the government are continually working to ensure the safety of the population in North-East China.
The Korean Foreign Ministry objected to that article: the Ministry’s spokesman, Noh Kyu-duk said, “Anyone should refrain from causing unnecessary misunderstanding or undermining peace and security with hypothetical scenarios regarding the situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
Nevertheless, it was reported in the US media on 11 December that Chinese regions bordering on the DPRK had started to build refugee camps in preparation for a possible crisis. The reports cited documents intended ‘for internal use only’ which had been leaked onto the Chinese sector of the Internet and related to the inspection of villages and towns near the border in order to choose sites for construction. Lu Kang, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry neither confirmed nor denied this, and the well-known DPRK specialist Zhang Liangui, professor of International Strategic Research at the Central Party School of the Communist Party, called the construction of camps, as part of preparations for any possible scenario, an entirely reasonable step. In a situation of widespread anxiety, silence and inactivity on the part of the authorities can cause more fear and rumors than ostentatious activity.
That is the reason for ‘Airspace Security 2017’: the computer-simulated command-and-control anti-missile exercises held jointly by Russia and China. They took place from 11 to 16 December at the base of the Scientific Research Institute for Air and Missile Defense of the People’s Liberation Army of China. The Russian and Chinese air defense contingents together repelled rocket attacks from ‘third countries’, so that, if a conflict breaks out on the peninsula, enemy ‘high-precision’ weapons would be prevented from flying over the border. The two countries developed ‘various options for cooperation between their commanding bodies, using Russian and Chinese forces and air and rocket defenses’.
To summarize the current phase of Chinese-North Korean relations, we can conclude that there has been no radical move towards peace with South Korea or cooling of relations with North Korea. If there had been such a change, it would have been demonstrated by, to say the least, a much harsher reaction to the DPRK’s rocket launch. Here we can say, rather, that the DPRK, overplayed its hand by acting as it did in September, and annoyed Beijing, but the USA’s actions in November seem to have annoyed Beijing just as much, and therefore the DPRK’s retaliatory move has not resulted in any further tightening of the screw. In fact it could rather be said that by continuing to pursue its own interests Beijing has moved several steps closer to Seoul, but that is not quite the same thing as a move further away from Pyongyang. Of course, if North Korea continues to act impetuously Beijing will react accordingly, but the same could be said about the actions of the USA, which are openly stirring up the situation in the region.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in history, leading researcher at the Centre for Korean Studies at the Institute of the Far East RAS, exclusively for the online-journal magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”