China, North Korea going through rough patch but break-up not on the horizon
No matter what strategic steps are taken by the Chinese government to deal with North Korea, doomsday scenarios appear to be alive and well.
In a recent essay for Politico, former Clinton administration official James Rubin argued that China’s cut-off of coal imports from North Korea had by definition made the isolated country much more likely to export chemical and biological weapons to terrorist groups. This is a major stretch of logic, but it is indicative of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” quality to how observers tend to look at China’s enforcement of sanctions.
China’s halt to accepting North Korean coal exports may, of course, have many reasons behind it. The Chinese Communist Party is endeavouring to cut domestic coal consumption, for one. The party is also committed to enforcing UN sanctions. These have led to a highly unusual North Korean state news agency editorial complaining about Chinese criticism and sanctions enforcement – evidence that China is taking steps to close loopholes. Here, the doomsday scenario is not seen as chemical or biological, but political, portending a broader split between the Chinese Communist Party and the Workers’ Party of Korea.
The relationship between China and North Korea is obviously experiencing a rough patch, but additional facts exist which might indicate that some kind of public spat or breakup is not on the horizon. In February, these included the potential for electricity sharing agreements in the Tumen river valley, meetings between PLA generals and their North Korean counterparts and more infrastructure arrangements for the processing of North Korean seafood in Hunchun. None of this is particularly flashy – and Kim Jong-un is hardly pressing for a meeting with Xi Jinping – but in the border region and elsewhere, the bilateral relationship is continuing.
The arrival of North Korea’s deputy foreign minister Ri Gil-song in Beijing is a further indicator that stabilisation rather than rupture in the relationship is in the cards. And Ri’s comparatively long stay in China will give him far more time to debrief his counterparts than his predecessor’s quick stay did in May 2016.
In Washington, the US State Department would normally be doing a celebratory dance over China’s cut-off of North Korean coal, but state appears to be a shell of its former self, with the prospect of massive cuts and unfilled positions. Republicans in the US Congress concerned with China-North Korea relations are pleased about the reduction in projected coal revenues for North Korea, but will continue to push for more pressure on Chinese firms doing business with Pyongyang.
Here, domestic politics in China can clash with Beijing’s need to keep the Americans mollified on the North Korea issue – at least assuring that China does not end up solely blamed for the presence and growth of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. If the Chinese government were more concerned with “optics” in US-China relations, the prosecution of the Chinese company Hongxiang for violating UN sanctions in its substantial export activity to North Korea would have received much more attention. Hongxiang’s head, Ma Xiaohong, certainly could have been held up as a signal example of the Communist Party’s willingness to enforce sanctions and depicted domestically as the target of an anticorruption investigation and Party justice.
But the power transition in Washington and the utter confusion over Trump’s China policy on nearly every front made such a gesture from Beijing or Dandong on the border with North Korea unnecessary. The new US Treasury Secretary has said very little about sanctions on North Korea, using his little available bandwidth on sanctions to discuss Iran instead.
Rex Tillerson at the State Department has been a bit of a cipher in terms of his public statements. He may have pressed China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jiechi in recent conversations, but there is little public pressure on China at the moment (apart from Congressional discussions) to go after more firms like Hongxiang, or come out with more information about the mechanics of its legal case against the firm. Still less is the Chinese government being forced to deal with Trump administration pressure on the North Korean human rights issue.
In this absence of data and a more vigorous approach from the Trump administration and its unusual and beleaguered propaganda operations, China has been able to absorb a measure of credit for its sanctions enforcement with North Korea. The standard caveats will be raised about off-the-books business activity across the Yalu and Tumen river valleys, plus doomsday scenarios about the death of Kim Jong-nam, as a harbinger of the collapse of bilateral relations. But China’s government can look back at its first month of managing the North Korea issue during the Trump administration as something of a success.
Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds