China’s Support for Kim Jong Il Undermines the U.N., Nonproliferation, and Regional Peace

Some of us, of course, have never really believed that the United Nations could play much of a useful role in restraining North Korea anyway, other than helping us enlist the support of Old Europe, which is almost alone in paying any heed to the U.N. After all, the institution is led by Ban Ki-Moon, who rose from local obscurity to international obscurity by appeasing Kim Jong Il, and who, by all outward appearances, suffers from a genetic testosterone deficiency. If Ban isn’t an outright tool of the Chinese, he’s functionally indistinguishable from one. This doesn’t mean the United States lacks options, as conventional wisdom often suggests. As I’ve laid out in great detail, we have yet to unloose Treasury and Justice to go after North Korea’s enablers — Chinese enablers included — and credibly threaten to block their assets under existing anti-money laundering and anti-proliferation authorities. This isn’t to suggest that the alternative is dreaded unilateralism; it just means that the only effective multilateral institutions must be those where China lacks a veto. Two excellent examples include the Financial Action Task Force and the Proliferation Security Initiative, which work because responsible governments everywhere enforce their core principles.

To get to the point of going around the U.N., however, the Obama Administration will first have to grasp the basic truth that China will continue to block all effective action there. In fact, China has been undermining U.N. sanctions against North Korea for years. Worse, it has also helped North Korea to acquire and sell key WMD components and technologies, voting for U.N. resolutions against North Korea while under international pressure, and then undermining those very resolutions. By all accounts, it continues to undermine UNSCR 1874 to this day, with respect to anti-proliferation measures and its luxury goods ban (see here, here, here, and here for just some examples of this).

China’s uninterrupted shielding of Kim Jong Il from post-Cheonan consequences has angered the South Korean government, and may also have shifted the thinking of a critical mass of American opinion about China’s intentions. Here’s SecDef Robert “Not Going to Buy the Same Horse Twice” Gates, speaking at an international security forum in Singapore:

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates challenged China to deal realistically with the short-term question of how to respond to an antagonistic North Korea and the longer-term issue of whether Beijing’s expanding military can establish more durable ties with the U.S. Asian nations cannot stand by in the face of North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean warship, Gates said during an international security summit Saturday that was dominated by questions about the North.

“To do nothing would set the wrong precedent,” Gates said. [AP, Anne Gearan]

Meanwhile, China shows signs of further expanding its trade with North Korea, effectively undermining the economic pressure mandated by U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874. Yes, I suspect that China is mildly embarrassed by North Korea’s behavior, but it’s still not prepared to impose any consequences on the North for the most brazen act of war since the Korean War Blue House Raid Rangoon Bombing KAL Bombing. It gets worse:

Over the last several years, China has given North Korean government officials jewels and precious stones worth $4 million, perfume and cosmetics worth $4.7 million, furs valued at $3.8 million as well alcohol and tobacco products worth $44 million, all in direct violation of a 2006 United Nations Security Council sanction China voted to approve.

The world is trying to determine how to punish North Korea for sinking a South Korean warship last month, killing 46 sailors. But all will be for naught as long as China continues serving as North Korea’s enabler. Along with those luxury goods, China also provides nearly all of North Korea’s fuel and more food than anyone else — $2 billion in declared aid each year and far more provided under the table.

There comes a point at which soft diplomacy isn’t smart diplomacy; it’s just plain dangerous to let believe believe that there’s no deterrent.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spent much of the last 10 days urging China to condemn the naval attack. China is resisting. But that’s a hollow exercise. China did criticize North Korea after its first nuclear-weapons test, in 2006. What did that accomplish? China shipped 20 percent more caviar to Kim Jong-il the next year, and North Korea tested another nuclear weapon in 2009. [….]

We can legitimately ask why China holds up a regime that allows its economy to remain in such “dire straits” that “a considerable share of the population is on the edge of starvation,” as a Congressional Research Service report puts it. Meantime, China feeds the political and military elite cigarettes, jewels, perfume and yachts.

Government and NGO reports from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan detail China’s luxury-good exports and show they actually increased by 40 percent in the year after the first nuclear-weapon test. The Congressional report says most of the luxury items “come into North Korea largely cost-free.” If anyone is to blame for North Korea’s renegade behavior, and the misery of its people, it is China.

UNICEF reports almost half of North Korea’s children are so malnourished they grow up stunted, both physically and mentally. The problem is irreversible and so prevalent the military had to lower its height requirement for new troops, to meet its recruiting goals. The average height for a 17-year-old boy now is 5 feet.

During the 1990s, as many as 2 million people starved to death. [McClatchey, Joel Brinkley]

John Feffer and Christine Ahn were not available for comment. Fortunately, Gates is showing signs that he gets this.

Washington is “assessing additional options to hold North Korea accountable,” apart from the UN Security Council route and planned military exercises with South Korea, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Singapore. He did not specify what the new measures might be but, in an apparent message to China, warned of the risks of inaction after North Korea’s alleged torpedo attack on the ship in March which killed 46 South Korean sailors. [….]

Gates said the sinking, which an international investigation blamed on Pyongyang, was not an isolated incident but “part of a larger pattern of provocative and reckless behaviour” by the North. The Pentagon chief, speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue on Asian security, called on countries in the region to respond to North Korea’s “dangerous provocations”. “Inaction would amount to an abdication of our collective responsibility to protect the peace and reinforce stability in Asia,” he said.

His remarks appeared aimed at China, an ally of North Korea that was slow to react to the incident and has yet to accuse Pyongyang of sinking the Cheonan. Gates pledged “full support” to South Korea at a “difficult hour” but avoided talk of any US or allied military response. [AFP]

Meanwhile, South Korea is now hinting that it may seek a toothless “Security Council letter” instead of a Security Council resolution. Whether that has to do with China’s obstruction, domestic politics, or both isn’t clear. Cue the video!

The effect will be to further weaken an already weak South Korean response, unless South Korea and the United States have in mind other ways to attack Kim Jong Il’s palace economy and undermine his internal political control.

What this means is that North Korea and China have effectively transformed the U.N. into an obstacle to the preservation and peace and the prevention of proliferation. That means that if we mean to accomplish those objectives, there’s no time to lose in going around the United Nations in the pursuit of effective action. And it would be one of history’s wonderful ironies if Nobel Laureate Barack Obama proves himself to be the man who finally has the backbone to do it.


  1. I think a great deal of us are too giddy in casting this post-Mao PRC as somehow completely disconnected from the murderous communist regime that took 70 million* lives since the 1949 revolution. While undergoing a facelift and brain surgery, China is having heart surgery. The old Maoist engine still beats in the breast of “new China” which is still decidedly Red and not really ready to cross the threshold into free market capitalism and republican political reform as our hubris would like to believe.

    The starving Koreans and human rights violations do not bother the PRC intellegentsia at all. The Juche cult is unsavory and the nukes are a nuisance, but only to China’s self-perception as a world power. Inasmuch as the DPRK functionally abuses its own people and threatens the region’s security, the PRC is more concerned about their own brand than reining in KJI. Korean lives are cheap to the PRC. But so are Chinese lives.

    *China’s one-child policy of forced abortions claims 35,000 children per day for a yield of 400 million infants murdered by the state since 1979.


  2. “Finding that North Korea’s foreign sourced income is now solely derived from conduct made illegal and preventable by existing UN Resolutions, the government of the United States declares that all vessels or aircraft or vehicles entering or leaving North Korea by air or sea or land shall be stopped and inspected at a place convenient to the United States government anywhere in the world outside North Korean waters or airspace or land territory, regardless whether such vessel or aircraft or vehicle shall have called at a subsequent place, and any that vessels or aircraft or vehicles that are found to contain embargoed materials shall be forfeited, together with all embargoed materials, and it shall be the burden of the owner or operator of the seized vessel or aircraft or vehicle to demonstrate in a court of the United States that the seized material that was responsible for the forfeiture was not of North Korean manufacture or origin.”

    Wouldn’t that be nice.

    We could do it, and China couldn’t stop it.

    It would be far from perect, but it would do enough, particulalrly the seizure and forfeiure provisions, to make North Korea’s missile and fissile export trade plunge even further.


  3. Some breaking news on succession watch:

    By WILLIAM FOREMAN, Associated Press Writer William Foreman, Associated Press Writer – Mon Jun 7, 10:55 am ET
    SEOUL, South Korea – The brother-in-law of Kim Jong Il was promoted to the No. 2 spot in the secretive nation’s leadership, a position that could allow him to become the next ruler or a kingmaker who will decide which of Kim’s sons succeeds his father.

    Jang was promoted to vice-chairman of the all-powerful National Defense Commission, which makes security policy, and now sits in the No. 2 position, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies.

    “With this post, he has been given all responsibility and rights to secure a stable structure for future succession,” Yang said.

    Jang, married to Kim’s younger sister, is widely believed to be a key backer of the North Korean leader’s third son, Jong Un, who several analysts think will be his father’s eventual successor. Many believe Jang may lead a collective leadership after Kim’s death and help groom one of the sons for the top job.

    “When it comes to Kim Jong Un’s succession, it was known that Jang would serve as the guardian,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

    “By officially becoming vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission, he now is in a position where institutionally he can act as Jong Un’s guardian, in the event that Kim Jong Il suddenly dies.”


  4. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I think one of the main reasons the U.S. won’t pressure China about North Korea—among other things—has a lot to do with all that debt the U.S. Treasury owes to Chinese banks (that and too many rope-peddling Americans are still more than eager to do business with the Chinese government).


  5. I’m gonna come off as the bad guy here and the China apologist, but I believe the U.S. has supported a lot of crappy regimes in the past 50 years when it was supposedly in our national interest (Iraq and a host of dens of iniquity in Latin America and Africa come to mind–nobody really seems to care how many people die in Africa). I don’t think that justifies what China is doing, but their “utilitarian” attitude has at least some basis in their actual physical situation. We can compare China to India in the next 30 years or so to properly judge the impact of the one child policy. However, I understand that when the one child policy was enacted, China really couldn’t even feed its population. Now they have food to spare for the Norks and seem to be easing off OCP (I’m curious whether the forced abortion statistics are still current–and to what extent abortions are now forced rather than encouraged). Maybe, to China, NK is kind of like a deadbeat younger brother. He may do lots of terrible stuff and never get his shizzle together, but he’s still your brother–like it or not. China’s attitude may be selfish, but it’s probably accurate to say that China has the most to lose from destabilization of the current NK regime (which they may hope will somehow peacefully evolve in China’ model sometime in the next generation).


  6. “Hans you’re breaking my balls here; you’re breakin’ my balls!”
    I am so sick of the United Notions that China will somehow enforce resolutions. When is some world leader or UN representative going to stick China’s nose in it? You can add to the above argument China’s treatment of North Korean refugees in Jilin and Liaoning provinces. It’s ridiculous that they must tour China’s railways to Mongolia or Thailand in order to reach South Korea. China could make more money by starting passenger ferry service between Dandong and Incheon. North Korean refugees would make such an enterprise very profitable.


  7. Joshua, all of us non Koreans know that China has been the host/estate giver to Korea’s world history for “thousands” of years. Why should we Americans ever get between such a one sided false relationship between China and it’s little brother Korea ?


    Because we Americans understood that the older brother must not bully the younger brother in terms of NE Asia (China-Korea),… And also we Nuked another so called pure blood Asian race known as the Jaoanese.

    Well, China and America have one thing in common,. Both got raped by Japan in history.

    One fought back like a Whale in the wake, and succeeded in doing nothing any nation on Earth has done in such a short amount of time. Defeated Japan, and achieved SUPERPOWER status only at an infant stage, less than 400 years.

    If anyone on Earth believes that the United States is not watching the Succesion of the DPRK more than closely, then they must also believe that the U.S. is not aware of spies in Seoul and Pyongyang (circa 2000-2008). The ROK and American governments both have one goal in mind.

    Korea must be unified by “best Korea”.


  8. Why do we and South Korea feel like we have to go to the UN for help on North Korea? They will not help and all, and UN shouldn’t control the world. We, the U.S. needs to break free(stand up) to China even if it makes the ecomemy worse.


  9. I don’t think the US can completely ignore the fact that China owns a large stake of its debt mountain, so the US certainly has to move carefully or at least rather thoughtful in its relations with China.

    And completely off topic : there is currently a lot of attention to Europe’s debt problems as we all know. And because investors are currently not buying euro’s (debt), they all see the $ as a very safe haven indeed.

    Now, coincidentally, the US Treasury has its very own debt auctions (every month) but oddly, US debt maturing in May 10, June 10, July 10 and Aug 10 is disproportionally high, to the tune of over $500bn.

    But the Treasury will have no issue selling this unusually large amount of maturing debt, because everybody won’t be buying euro’s at this time.

    What I am getting at is that we’re coming to a situation where piles of Western debt is actually bigger that what markets can actually handle (this is actually a fact). In such a situation, debtors actually have to fight and win over creditors. One good way to do this is painting black fellow debtors ie Europe. And all of a sudden, we have Reuters, AP, Doomberg painting pictures of impending Armegeddon in Europe.

    Conspiracy ? You decide, but don’t rule it out just yet, after all, in general, European debt is a lot less than the USA (apart from Greece).


  10. Alec, thanks for that link. I added it to this post about the killings (about which I’d like to hear Joshua’s take). Four dozen South Koreans won’t get Beijing to pay much attention to Pyongyang’s bad behavior, but for three Chinese they are willing to provide a rebuke. But as we’ve seen in the past, China doesn’t necessarily even respond much more than that to North Koreans going into China and killing its citizens.


  11. On the Liaoning/Pyong’anbuk border shooting, no one seems to have bothered to have quoted Qin Gang directly.

    Here’s what he said (my translation, feel free to quibble with it):

    问:据韩国媒体报道,在中朝边界发生了枪击事件,有中国人死亡,请确认。中方对此有何评论?Q: According to South Korean media reports, an incident with firearms occurred on the Chinese-North Korean border in which a Chinese person died. Please confirm. Does China have any criticism toward this [report/action]?

    答:6月4日凌晨,辽宁省丹东市居民因涉嫌越境从事边贸活动遭到朝鲜边防部队枪击,造成3人死亡,1人受伤。事发后,中方高度重视,立即向朝方进行严正交涉。目前此案正在进一步调查和处理过程中,相信有关部门会适时发布有关情况。A: Early in the morning on June 4, citizens of Dandong city in Liaoning province whom [we] suspect of crossing the border illegally for trade activities were shot by a North Korean border patrol, killing three people and wounding one. After this incident, to which the Chinese side attaches high importance, [we] sternly negotiated with the North Korean side. Now an investigation of this incident is continuing, and we trust that the relevant departments will publicize the relevant situation in due course.

    There’s no English version of the press conference available as yet, so you’re stuck with my translation or however Chosun Ilbo choses to interpret things. (Nothing against the ROK’s wonderfully combative press, but in general when it comes to news from Beijing, I’d prefer to have the original source than rely on a Seoul newspaper.)

    More links and some analysis are available here; thanks Sonagi for that BBC link. There’s also an NYT story on it which for some reason I can’t access at present but am able to link. Perhaps it’s of some use.


  12. From the Guardian: It was not an accidental shooting, that is; the North Koreans did not mistake the Chinese for their own people:

    South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said the dead men were well known smugglers in Dandong and had made prior arrangement as usual with their North Korean partners.

    Another disturbing detail is the fact that they were shot while aboard a boat approaching Sinuiju, not departing from the North Korean shore.

    …the illicit traders were fired on by guards as they approached the North Korean city of Sinuju. It said border controls had been tightened shortly before the incident.

    Anybody who has visited Dandong as a tourist knows that one of the popular activities to do there is take a ride on a small speedboat along the Sinuiju shoreline in North Korean territory. The tour boats get within a stone’s throw of the North Korean shore, as I recall having a couple of rocks thrown in my direction when aiming my camera at the restless natives.


  13. If the reports are true, then yes, it does seem odd that reports of people being shot at or fired upon conversing illicitly between the PRC and DPRK finally are getting leaked to the Press. Odd thing is that the PRC is also now leaking these testimonies/anger against the DRPK, yet in smaller doses. Baby Steps.

    Still, we have admit that China has finally grown tired of the “teeth” so close to it’s “lips” being a haughty beggar.