Will China Finally Pay a Price for Enabling North Korea?

A staffer for the new, improved, media-savvy Republican Staff for the House Foreign Affairs Committee forwards some interesting video clips of its senior members talking about U.S. policy toward China. First up is Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who calls President Obama’s treatment of the Dalai Lama “shameful.”

Next, Dan Burton contrasts this with the effusive welcome given to the ChiCom emperor, who used the occasion to embarrass his hosts and score points with nationalist, anti-American netizens at home.

Finally, Chris Smith called Obama’s failure to raise human rights issues during Hu’s visit “a grotesquely missed opportunity.”

You can easily predict the reaction from certain quarters to this sort of rhetoric — that strident criticism of China’s domestic abuses and its foreign mischief hinders the all-important goal of “harmonious” relations, to which some of them seem to assign more value that the very values of our nation. This criticism comes into two flavors. The first of these discounts the very legitimacy of the issues that the members raise. Its arrogance is to squander the right of free speech by insisting that the same right should be denied to everyone else. But that is a view held mostly by inhabitants of the political fringes and those who would only visit a site like this one to gather open-source information.

The second view nominally accepts the legitimacy of the issues, but prefers to downplay them while questioning the stridency of rhetoric raising them. When pressed, these Downplayers usually insist that their criticisms originate from a sincere desire to help the United States to acquire influence, improve relations, and ultimately advance its national interests, but the criticisms lack mutuality when it’s China that commits the effrontery. For example, you’d expect to hear these critics express a little more dismay when China it engages in gratuitous antagonisms like having a pianist play “My Motherland” at a White House state dinner. It’s hard to see what legitimate national interest that advanced. Or, you’d expect them to advocate America’s interests to the Chinese when China is repeatedly exposed enabling North Korea as a proliferator and aggressor. If that is happening, I’m not seeing it, and furthermore, China clearly isn’t listening to it. But unlike the state dinner fiasco, you can at least rationalize these provocations-by-proxy with China’s national interests … provided that you interpret China’s view of its interests as a zero-sum competition with the United States. So much for harmonious relations. Meanwhile, as the Downplayers held functional control of U.S. policy in Asia, we have moved further from the realization of America’s interests, not closer.


The Obama administration initially appeared to accept the counsel of the Downplayers, but to its credit, it shows signs of having since learned that its obsequiousness toward China gained us nothing more than an intensification of human rights abuses, more Chinese bullying of its neighbors, and more money in Kim Jong Il’s bank accounts. Indeed, the main flaw in the Republicans’ criticism is that parts of it now seem stale — I mean, have you read what Hillary Clinton has said about China lately? It almost makes Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s words seem mild:

The Obama Administration has been ratcheting-up the rhetoric on China’s human rights record lately, especially since the arrest of the dissident Ai Weiwei, but Secretary Clinton, in our interview, went much further, questioning the long-term viability of the one-party system. After she referred to China’s human rights record as “deplorable” (itself a ratcheting-up of the rhetoric), I noted that the Chinese government seemed scared of the Arab rising. To which she responded: “Well, they are. They’re worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it. But they’re going to hold it off as long as possible.”

That is a welcome change. Deferential policies by both Obama and his predecessor, a slower learner when it came to perceiving China’s malicious intent, contributed to North Korea’s confidence that it could attack South Korea with diplomatic and financial impunity. China obviously concluded that there would not be tangible consequences for its own role in supporting and underwriting North Korea’s crimes, and nothing that the United States has done in the last two decades has really suggested otherwise. The effect of this has been to reinforce China’s arrogance, not its interest in compromise. Maybe what more members of Congress are thinking is that it’s time for a new approach that threatens to impose some consequences for China’s bad faith. Such as? Such as:

The United States is considering expanding sanctions on North Korea to the same level as those imposed on Iran. Legislation, called the ‘Iran, North Korea, and Syria Sanctions Consolidation Act of 2011’ that has been submitted to the US Senate, introduces tougher sanctions on the communist stateand aims to increase pressure on companies doing business with the North. The bill, which is currently imposed on Iran, would expand an asset freeze on companies, groups or individuals selling military goods or technology to Pyeongyang and ban their access to the US banking system.

The Senate bill, which you can read here, has bipartisan backing:

The bill to “expand sanctions imposed with respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran, North Korea and Syria and for other purposes” calls for the freezing of assets of any company trading technology and equipment with the countries and banning their access to the U.S. banking system.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the bill Monday with the sponsorship of 11 other senators. Among them are Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Bob Casey (D-PA) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ). The bill comes one day ahead of the Obama administration’s announcement to blacklist Korea Tangun Trading Corp. of North Korea and 14 other foreign firms for their involvement in weapons of mass destruction programs in North Korea, Iran and Syria. North Korea has been under sanctions by the United Nations for its nuclear and missile tests.

The bill also coincides with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s ongoing tour of China, his third visit within a year, apparently to seek economic cooperation and China’s support for the third-generation power transition to his youngest son, Jong-un.

This looks like nothing more than a refined form of item six of Plan B, yet another idea whose time might just have finally come. Given the mood among House Republicans, who ran out of patience with China’s North Korea mischief years ago, there’s little question that they’d support a similar bill. The more interesting question now is whether the President is prepared to sign it into law.

Clearly, China is the country whose parastatals and businesses would be most affected by this legislation, which might be why China now feels the need to lie to us about all the pressure it’s really putting on North Korea. Alarmists will predict that sanctions like these would cause a dangerous financial rupture between China and the United States, but they forget that such a rupture would also be harmful to China economic and political stability. Even most Chinese entities that currently have investments in North Korea, faced with the choice of cutting their financial links to North Korea or the United States, would escape any ill effects by simply choosing the former. The consequence would be capital flight from the North Korean regime’s banks.

Bonus points for any guesses as to how this might affect Kaesong.

Update: The House introduces its bill, which is also bipartisan:

The bill, co-drafted by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) calls for the expansion and strengthening of sanctions against the so-called rogue states.

Among a set of stipulations in the bill is to tighten reporting requirements in the existing nonproliferation act to include information on persons who have acquired materials mined or otherwise extracted within the territory or control of the three nations.

It also sanctions any entity that is selling conventional military goods or technology to them.

“The continued collaboration between Iran, North Korea and Syria helps drive the dangerous programs and policies of each of these rogue states, and endangers the United States and our allies,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a press release. “The threats posed by these rogue regimes to free nations and to the oppressed people of these three countries grow every day.”

She added the measure will “strengthen laws already on the books which seek to prevent these rogue states from sending dangerous materials to one another, other rogues and extremist groups.”

Chinese companies are heavily involved in mining in North Korea, and those operations are a major source of income for Kim Jong Il, but without reading the bill, it’s hard to determine the effect it would have on those operations. The bill is still so new that the text isn’t on Thomas.

Photo from here.


  1. Yeah, I’m totally sure pianist Lang Lang, who was educated in the U.S. and lives in New York, was part of a secret Chinese plot to embarrass their state dinner hosts. Please. He plays this piece all the time as an encore. Can we dispense with this fiction already?

    And I suppose we’d better make sure no one plays or sings our national anthem at any official function involving representatives of the UK. And just to be sure, no “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” either. They might be offended by the subversion of “God Save the Queen.”


  2. And I suppose we’d better make sure no one plays or sings our national anthem at any official function involving representatives of the UK. And just to be sure, no “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” either. They might be offended by the subversion of “God Save the Queen.”

    Except none of those songs contain lyrics like 若是那豺狼来了/迎接它的有猎枪.


  3. Anyone know why the language of the resolution mentions the “Islamic Republic of Iran,” but refers to the other two countries by their informal names (as opposed to the “Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea” and the “Syrian Arab Republic”)?