After years of extensive, flagrant, and well-documented violations of U.N. sanctions against North Korea, China is finally reaping the consequences. Americans don’t agree on much anymore, but Beijing’s cheating has achieved a political impossibility — it has united 418 representatives, 96 senators, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the mainstream of North Korea watchers in support of secondary sanctions on the (mostly Chinese) banks and businesses that are propping up Kim Jong-un financially. That policy is now expressed in law, and the U.S. Treasury Department has taken its first steps toward aggressive implementation.
Not surprisingly, China isn’t happy about this.
The so-called secondary sanctions will compel banks to freeze the assets of anyone who breaks the blockade, potentially squeezing out North Korea’s business ties, including those with China.
Asked whether China was worried the sanctions could affect “normal” business links between Chinese banks and North Korea, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said this was something China was “paying attention to”.
“First, as I’ve said many times before, China always opposes any country imposing unilateral sanctions,” Lu told a daily news briefing in Beijing.
“Second, under the present situation where the situation on the Korean Peninsula is complex and sensitive, we oppose any moves that may further worsen tensions there.”
“Third, we have clearly stressed many times in meetings with the relevant county, any so-called unilateral sanctions imposed by any country should neither affect nor harm China’s reasonable interests.” [Reuters]
So far, Treasury hasn’t frozen any Chinese and Russian assets, but it’s delivering a message to Chinese banks to stay away from North Korea, and the banks are listening. Even before the U.N. Security Council approved UNSCR 2270, some Chinese banks and businesses began freezing North Korean assets.
“Any so-called unilateral sanctions imposed by any country should neither affect nor harm China’s reasonable interests,” Lu warned. He said Beijing has stressed this point many times.
The new sanctions “up the ante quite significantly,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a sanctions expert at the Center for a New American Security, the new sanctions “up the ante quite significantly.”
“It does impose something akin to a full embargo on persons who do business with North Korea,” she said.
Victor Cha, senior fellow to the Bush Institute on North Korea and director of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said these comments show Beijing is concerned about getting caught in the sanction net. In an interview with Foreign Policy, he said China was especially worried about the slave-labor provisions.
“China imports North Korean slave labor,” he said. “That’s the piece the Chinese don’t like the most, the secondary sanctioning.”
“This is a grade up from the level of sanctions that had been in place before,” Cha added. [Foreign Policy, David Francis]
Russia, too, has actively aided North Korea’s violations of U.N. sanctions, and it’s also upset about “unilateral” U.S. sanctions. Its propaganda machine is churning out tired arguments that sanctions will only hurt the North Korean people, although I don’t recall Russian propaganda outlets complaining that North Korea’s last long-range missile test cost enough to fund World Food Program operations in North Korea for 15 years.
Despite Moscow’s ambivalence about sanctioning Pyongyang, Gazprom just cut its ties to North Korea. Oddly enough, the U.N. sanctions don’t even require this. Sure, it’s possible that Vladimir Putin has had a change of heart and decided to pressure Kim Jong-un, but it seems more likely that Gazprom is concerned about the legal risks from Treasury’s sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s energy industry.
The reports on China’s compliance with the sanctions continue to be mixed. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says, “China could do much more than it has to get North Korea to ‘stop provocations,’” while a senior State Department official recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that China was “ready to work with us on detailed implementation and consultation on a range of issues.” Both of those things could be true, I suppose, but they yield different headlines.
Until recently, cargo had transited the land border between China and North Korea more-or-less unimpeded, but now, according to both Yonhap and the Chosun Ilbo, China has stepped up inspections at its border crossings, too. With respect to maritime cargo, Yonhap cites South Korean government sources who claim that Beijing has directed local governments to bar the 31 U.N.-designated North Korean ships from its ports. The Asahi Shimbun reports that “China has banned the entry of North Korean vessels to Yingkou port in Liaoning province, a major gateway for China’s coal imports” from the North.
As of March 18, two North Korean ships were stranded outside the port, located about 200 kilometers northwest from the border between the two countries. The vessels have reportedly decided to return to North Korea. “China will likely impose a similar embargo at other ports from now on,” a source familiar with the matter told The Asahi Shimbun. [Asahi Shimbun]
Two press reports dated the same day contradict each other about whether China is enforcing the ban on importing North Korean coal. Reuters says that the Chinese government hasn’t told Chinese coal buyers to stop importing North Korean coal; the Joongang Ilbo says it has. To further complicate matters, the U.N. sanctions have a “livelihood” loophole, while U.S. sanctions have much narrower humanitarian exceptions. A reasonable, middle-ground approach that’s completely consistent with both authorities would be to interpret “livelihood” to require payment in food, humanitarian supplies, or donations to the World Food Program or other humanitarian aid programs. It should prohibit payment in gold, dollars, or other convertible currencies.
U.N. sanctions ban mineral imports from North Korea and require member states to seize property of designated entities, including Ocean Maritime Management and the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which also reportedly operates a small fleet of ships . They do not impose a blanket embargo on North Korean trade. U.S. sanctions do not impose a trade embargo, either, but do authorize U.S. Customs to step up inspections of cargo coming from ports that fail to inspect cargo coming from or going to North Korea. This amounts to a secondary sanction.
On the financial front, the Chosun Ilbo quotes “sources” as claiming that the Dandong branch of the U.N.- and U.S.-designated Korea Kwangson Banking Corporation has closed. In 2013, it simply went underground for a while, but this time, it actually appears to have closed. The Chosun also reports that “[a] growing number of North Korean restaurants in northeastern China are closing down.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. and South Korea are meeting this week to “review and discuss ways to maximize pressure on North Korea by effectively applying the three axes of the Security Council resolution, unilateral sanctions imposed by South Korea and the U.S., and pressure by the international community.” In Seoul, Sung Kim, the U.S. representative to the six-party talks, says our government intends to enforce U.N. sanctions with “vigor and energy,” but undercuts that conclusion with this:
Asked if Russian and Chinese companies employing North Korean workers would be subject to the sanctions, Fried said the new executive order provides “very broad authorities” to deal with the issue. “It doesn’t mandate anything in particular, but the authorities are there if needed,” he told reporters, standing next to Sung Kim. [Yonhap]
Ambassador Kim is mistaken. The executive order implements a statute whose sanctions are mandatory. Recently, China has expressed interest in three-way consultations with the U.S. and South Korea about enforcement of the sanctions. Expect those consultations to be tense. The left-leaning Hankyoreh Sinmun reports that the South Korean and Chinese foreign ministers “clashed” over the enforcement of sanctions against the North in a recent phone call. Securing our interests will require firmness and resolve, but it would still be preferable for all involved if China implements the sanctions “voluntarily.”