U.N. Shocker! China Helps North Korea Cheat on Sanctions

A new report by a panel of U.N.-appointed experts confirms what we’ve really known all along — that China is acting in bad faith by helping North Korea violate three U.N. resolutions China’s U.N. Ambassador voted for. With many thanks to a few good friends of mine, you can read the whole thing yourself here …


… or you can simply read the fair and balanced analysis that follows, beginning with these quotes to give you some idea of the gravity of the problems we’re talking about:

[T]he Panel of Experts has reviewed several government assessments, IAEA (U.N. nuclear watchdog) reports, research papers and media reports indicating continuing DPRK (North Korea) involvement in nuclear and ballistic missile related activities in certain countries including Iran, Syria and Myanmar. [….]

Evidence provided in these reports indicates that the DPRK has continued to provide missiles, components, and technology to certain countries including Iran and Syria since the imposition of these measures. [….]

The Panel of Experts is also looking into suspicious activity in Myanmar including activities there of Namchongang Trading (NCG), a 1718 Committee designated entity, and reports that Japan, in June 2009, arrested three individuals for attempting to illegally export a magnetometer to Myanmar via Malaysia, allegedly under the direction of a company known to be associated with illicit procurement for DPRK nuclear and military programmes. [….]

The 1718 Committee has been notified, since the adoption of resolution 1874 (2009), of four non-compliance cases involving arms exports. An analysis of these cases indicates that the DPRK continues to engage in exporting such proscribed items. In these cases, the DPRK has used a number of masking techniques in order to circumvent the Security Council measures, including false description and mislabeling of the content of the containers, falsification of the manifest covering the shipment, alteration and falsification of the information concerning the original consignor and ultimate consignee, and use of multiple layers of intermediaries, shell companies, and financial institutions.

The report, while avoiding direct criticism of China, also presents ample evidence that its government has been willfully blind (at best) to North Korean violations of the resolutions, and makes recommendations that are clearly directed at China. Characteristically for China’s rulers, their reaction was to suppress the report. I don’t know whether or how much China managed to water down the report’s contents, but they did succeed at blocking its release for six months, until after the U.S. mid-term elections, and shortly before President Obama was to meet with Hu Jintao. This isn’t the first critical U.N. report China has suppressed this year. It also recently suppressed another U.N. report presenting evidence that Chinese-made arms continue to show up in Darfur, notwithstanding another U.N. sanctions resolution.

The new U.N. report coincides with a report by the Congressional Research Service that finds that North Korea is finding ways around UNSCR 1695, 1718, and 1874, with plenty of help from China. The next Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has reacted by calling for a tightening of sanctions.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who stands to take over in January after her party won the House of Representatives, said the United States must act “quickly and firmly” to stop weapons proliferation from North Korea.

“Instead of continuing its failed strategy of seeking to engage the regime in endless negotiation, the administration must ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement Wednesday. [AFP]

I don’t disagree with Ms. Ros-Lehtinen that our diplomacy with North Korea has been “endless,” and I’d add that it’s been endlessly unproductive because it has lacked benchmarks for progress and consequences for bad faith. The problem, however, isn’t that we’re willing to talk to North Korea at all — subject to important conditions — the problem is that some of our dialogue “partners” here are dealing with us in bad faith with complete and historically justifiable confidence that they’ll get away with it. I don’t think I need to be a fly on the wall in the Forbidden City to infer that this is done the specific purpose of depriving us of the leverage that effective diplomacy requires. The current U.N. resolutions, along with Executive Order 13,511, would be perfectly effective tools for providing that leverage nonviolently if China wasn’t actively undermining them. Yet thus far, the Obama Administration hasn’t been willing to impose consequences on the Chinese entities that help North Korea circumvent sanctions, despite the growing risk that all of this is leading to terrorists nuking up with direct or indirect North Korean (and therefore, Chinese) help. Our greater problem, then, isn’t really an excess of dialogue with North Korea; in fact, there’s been relatively little of that recently. The real problem is our failure to recognize, confront, and punish China for its cheating.

Let’s start with some recognition, beginning with WMD and arms proliferation. The most complimentary way to characterize China’s compliance with the U.N. sanctions resolutions would be to call it apathetic. But there is ample evidence that China actively helped North Korea acquire and proliferate the same WMD capabilities it now pretends it doesn’t want North Korea to have. Instead of assisting with the agreed strategy of pressuring North Korea to disarm, China has a long history of undermining U.N. sanctions, and we now know that this policy continues unabated despite China’s disingenuous votes at the Security Council. Recall, for example, that plane load of weapons seized by Thai authorities in December 2009 — a shipment that included man-portable surface-to-air missiles and ballistic missile components. Two-thirds of that flight passed over over Chinese airspace, meaning that China would have had to grant the plane overflight rights.


Did China feel no responsibility to exercise basic due diligence before doing this? Was it coincidental that an Auckland, New Zealand trading company headed by one “Lu Zhang” arranged the shipment? The same question can be asked of that shipment of rocket-propelled grenades that was headed from North Korea to Iran before it was seized in the UAE. That shipment was arranged in the Shanghai office of an Italian shipping company.


The Panel of Experts recommends, in this regard, that extra vigilance be exercised in accordance with local norms at the first overseas maritime port handling such shipments or transshipments of [North Korea] with regard to containers carrying cargo originating in [North Korea].

Any guesses where the “first maritime port” will be in the vast majority of cases? China is also permitting North Korea to smuggle WMD through its airspace, across the breadth of China’s vast land mass, with the full knowledge and permission of the men who rule it.

The DPRK is believed to use air cargo to handle high-valued and sensitive arms exports. Such cargo can be sent by direct air cargo from the DPRK to the destination country. Some modern cargo planes, for example, can fly non-stop from the DPRK to Iran, when routed directly through neighboring air space. [CNN]

And here’s a picture of the great circle route a direct flight would take between Pyongyang and Tehran:


All of which draws this woefully insufficient recommendation:

The Panel of Experts also notes that air cargo poses certain other issues and vulnerabilities. Difficulties involved in the inspection or cargo in an aircraft in transit and the inability to subject direct flights to inspection leaves in place important vulnerabilities with respect to the implementation of the resolutions. The Pane recommends that consideration be given by Member States over whose territory such aircraft may fly, stop, or transit that efforts be undertaken in those cases to closely monitor air traffic to and from Sunan International Airport and other national airports, and that cargoes to and from the country be declared before overflight clearance is provided.

Well, fine then! They’ll just “declare” that they’re flying Baby Milk from Pyongyang to Tehran. Here’s a proposal: nations that habitually proliferate and violate U.N. resolutions should be denied overflight rights unless they agree to let the aircraft land for inspection. After all, shouldn’t recidivist WMD proliferation carry some minimal inconvenience as a consequence? But because it doesn’t, North Korea has managed to maintain a healthy business in selling major weapons systems — in flagrant violation of UNSCR 1718 and 1874 — by breaking those systems down and flying them non-stop to the destination countries in pieces.

Nor have the sanctions prevented Kim Jong Il from providing his starving people the things they obviously need the most, like “36 pianos, two yachts and four Mercedes cars. Not surprisingly, the U.N. report concludes that member states need to harmonize just how they define the term “luxury goods” to determine whether it includes, say, those sweet Italian yachts, or that trainload of cars recently photographed while crossing into North Korea around the time of Kim Il Sung’s birthday. You know, for those babies who are starving because of Yankee imperialist sanctions.

Separately, we’re also learning more about how China is also helping North Korea to evade financial sanctions:

As an another way to launder money, North Koreans in China open accounts in banks there and deposit dollars they have brought from the North, disguising themselves as South Koreans. Chinese banks require North or South Korean customers to fill in just “Korea” on application forms when opening a bank account and clerks are apparently untrained to distinguish the passports of the two Koreas as both have green covers.

Alternatively the regime raises money by smuggling out gold bullion and selling them in the name of a local company. One firm in Hong Kong is said to have been especially active in that line until recently. [Chosun Ilbo]

In isolation, I could believe that any — or even a few — of these incidents were simply oversights, or cases of China being fooled by North Korea’s deceptions. But taken together, they indicate a deliberate Chinese policy of undermining U.N. and Treasury Department sanctions, and of trying to suppress the evidence of its own cheating. But at the presidential level, the Chinese don’t even bother to conceal their disinterest in being helpful:

Bush recalls in his memoir, “Decision Points,” the moment in October 2002 when he asked Chinese President Jiang Zemin at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, for China’s help in pressuring North Korea not to pursue nuclear weapons programs.

“He told me North Korea was my problem, not his,” Bush said, quoting Jiang as saying also, “Exercising influence over North Korea is very complicated.”

Bush’s remarks reflect the sentiments of his successor, Barack Obama, who in June denounced China for its “willful blindness” to North Korea on the sinking of a South Korean warship and other provocations. [Yonhap]

Many people whose outdated concept of the threat North Korea poses see that threat in terms of a 1950-style invasion. If that were in fact true, a North Korea policy need go no further than conventional deterrence until the whole bloody experiment finally unravels at last. North Korea’s conventional threat is now sufficiently diminished that it justifies little cost to our substantial trade with China.

Unfortunately, the North Korean threat is something much more dangerous and much less deterrable today. It’s not an easy thing to ask people to confront this, but today, we need to rethink U.S. relations with China in terms comparative to the value of the American city we’ll lose to North Korea nuclear material or technology, proliferated with Chinese assistance. Seen in those terms, it’s worth absorbing some costs in our relations with China, which are probably in a long-term decline anyway, for reasons beyond our control. For now, China needs its American markets to sustain high economic growth rates and thus social stability. Is it really interested in starting a trade war with America or risking a severe breakdown in relations? Seen in those terms, China stands to lose more than the United States if the Treasury Department revives the strategy it began in 2005 with Banco Delta Asia, sanctioning the smaller Chinese banks and trading companies that China uses to prop up North Korea. The only diplomatically effective answer to Hu Jintao’s dismissal is to make North Korea China’s problem, too.

There are also more radical options, of course. It’s often said how China craves stability above all other things. Do you suppose China’s valuation of Kim Jong Il’s firm hand might change if North Korean citizens, given more independent access to foreign food, information, and cell phone signals, began striking or rioting in North Korean cities? Or if, heaven forbid, significant quantities of AK-47’s and RPG’s began showing up in the hands of North Korean cross-border bandits-slash-insurgents on either side of the Yalu River? Since I’m just hypothesizing out loud here, these are things that could plausibly happen with or without the assistance or encouragement of foreign governments. In either event, China might just see the orderly, negotiated termination of the Kim Dynasty and denuclearization of North Korea as net positives for the stability it craves. Diplomacy can’t work unless the people you’re talking to believe you’re willing to consider other alternatives. So what alternatives is President Obama prepared to consider?

One comment

  1. The North Korean people’s struggle will be asymmetrical. They’ll need IEDs, and we should even consider man-portable surface-to-air missiles for them. We also need to correct our trade imbalance with China, oppose their exchange-rate manipulation, and stimulate our own economy. This will require better policy from Obama, who’s already better than any of his recent predecessors, but it will also require better policy from the Republicans and from business leaders.



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