Archive for China

Because that worked out so well in 2008 …

The International Olympic Committee is seriously contemplating giving the Olympics to China again — the same Olympics that caused a wave of thuggery, censorship, bullying, and even rioting, and were a public relations fiasco for China.

More relevant for purposes of this blog, it also led to a wave of round-ups of North Korean refugees. That means that the International Olympic Committee’s award of the Olympics to China will likely cost hundreds, if not thousands, of North Korean lives.

Fifty a day, every Tuesday. Men. Women. Children.

“These days, China trucks about 50 North Korean defectors from its immigration detention center in Tumen to North Korea’s Namyang city just across the border every Tuesday,” an activist said, citing an unidentified Chinese official familiar with the matter. He did not elaborate on the official’s identity for fear of possible reprisal against her by the Chinese government. [Yonhap]

Update: The title of this post was edited after publication, adding the words “every Tuesday.”

Is Yonhap disinforming us about China and crude oil?

If they keep feeding us the same false story after it’s been debunked, perhaps a little paranoia is in order. Again, the report is that China hasn’t export any crude oil to North Korea. The report is based on KOTRA statistics that show no crude oil shipments — which may or may not go unreported as “donations” — but those statistics also show a sharp rise in exports of refined petroleum products like diesel and jet fuel.

~   ~   ~

Update: NK News has more information that debunks Yonhap’s story. Apparently, North Korea is also getting fuel from a spiteful Russia now. Why does Yonhap want us to believe this? I suppose the most likely explanation is just a reporters’ careless reading of the KOTRA statistics, but it does cross my mind that someone might want Americans to believe that China is finally putting pressure on North Korea.

If I were to pick a pressure point against North Korea, however, it wouldn’t be fuel, which has dual-use applications, including the growing and transportation of food. A fuel cut-off would hurt too many of the wrong people.

Peter Hahn speaks out about China freezing his accounts and investigating him …

for his humanitarian activities. Hahn says, “We feed 22,000 children every day,” including the most pitiful children of all, the kkotjaebi. While I’m generally skeptical of claims that food aid can reach the intended recipients inside North Korea, Hahn tells a sympathetic and compelling story. Read and decide for yourself.

I’m not sure if Hahn is doing as much good as he thinks he is, but I am sure that China and Kim Jong Un are the villains of this story. How ironic (and typical) that China won’t freeze the assets of North Korea proliferators and money launderers, but does freeze the assets of people who are trying to feed North Korean orphans.

Those who believe that China is ready to abandon His Porcine Majesty, and those who still see any glimmer of hope that Kim Jong Un wants to open North Korean society, should read this story carefully.

Faced with a grassroots protest movement, China manufactures mass obedience.

Local media swirled with reports of marchers getting paid or bused in to attend the pro-government march. One video (Cantonese) purportedly showed cash being handed out to marchers.” [link]

China shuts down exhibition by North Korean satirist

IF THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT WONDERS why its own people find its modern cultural output stultifying, then maybe it shouldn’t stultify quite so much:

A North Korean defector known for his satirical paintings on North Korean society was forbidden from holding a rare exhibition in Beijing on Sunday, with Chinese police officials removing his artwork shortly before the exhibition began.

The painter from North Korea with the pseudonym Sun Mu, who fled the North in 1998 and resettled in South Korea in 2001, has been called a “faceless” artist as he does not allow himself to be photographed out of fears that his family left behind could suffer retribution. [Yonhap]

This man must be brave to go to a country that’s swarming with regime agents, assassins, and abduction squads. The good news story here is that North Koreans are emerging as a cultural force in their own right. That will eventually make them a serious cultural threat to the regime.

Polls show Asians are increasingly fearful of China

There is much interesting news this week about how China’s bullying of its neighbors is perceived in other Asian nations, including South Korea. An AP report describes how China’s predatory hegemony in the Pacific has (as I suspected it would) alienated other Asian nations and isolated China itself.

A more interesting item, noted in The Washington Post, is a graphic of Pew Research polling data from Asian countries showing that majorities (or strong majorities) throughout the region are afraid of China’s bad touch. In all, 83% of South Koreans, 85% of Japanese, 84% of Vietnamese, and 93% of Filipinos are either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” that “territorial disputes between China and its neighbors will lead to a military conflict.” Most shockingly of all, 62% of Chinese agree.

Taiwan was not surveyed.

I’d be interested in knowing why Pew thinks it was able to get an accurate and honest sample of public opinion in China, and whether the result means that a pacifist streak lies latent, beneath China’s recent displays of obnoxious nationalism. You can read Pew’s full results here. Last year’s survey didn’t ask exactly the same questions, so it’s hard to make a direct year-to-year comparison, although the percentages above were generally higher than the percentages of respondents who, in the 2013 survey, said that territorial disputes with China were a “big” or “very big” problem in their country. In South Korea, the percentage rose from 77% to 83%.

America’s image abroad — sit down for this — isn’t particularly shiny, either. Most Africans love us, but Europeans hate us because of drones and Snowden, Russians hate us because of the Ukraine, and the Muslim world hates us the most of all, although the survey regrettably failed to ask whether this is because we’re stealing their rain, covered up Israel’s assassination of a disobedient JFK, created AIDS in a secret CIA laboratory, released killer mosquitoes in Pakistan, or stole their babies to harvest their organs, all of which are perfectly acceptable responses.

Meanwhile, the Asan Institute has released new survey data showing that although South Koreans have a generally favorable impression of Park Geun Hye’s recent summit with Xi Jinping, “more Koreans think Seoul needs to work harder on its security cooperation with Tokyo and Washington,” than before the summit.

In a survey conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, 59 percent of respondents picked Japan and the United States as the countries Korea needs to increase security cooperation with, up from 57.1 percent in a survey conducted in March.

In March, 29.8 percent picked China as the country to boost security cooperation with, which dropped to 26.5 percent in July. 

Likewise, 59.6 percent of respondents said that Korea has to strengthen cooperation with the U.S in July compared to 24.9 percent who thought cooperation should be boosted with China.

In March, 56.9 percent of respondents thought Korea’s should boost cooperation with Washington while 29.4 percent thought cooperation with Beijing should be strengthened. [Joongang Ilbo]

The shifts are modest, but still remarkable in light of China’s uncharacteristically skillful courting of South Korea, Japan’s recent unforced outrages against South Koreans, and the South Korean press’s coincident blindness toward China’s sexual exploitation of Korean women and its chronic priapism for inflammatory anti-Japanese stories.

Although the Korean reaction to the summit was favorable, it was less favorable than the reaction to Park’s visit to Beijing last year.

As they say, in crisis, there is opportunity. These results add further weight to my advocacy of a Pacific military alliance to contain China and preserve peace in the region now that Xi Jinping’s grabby hands have landed China on Asia’s sex offender registry and conclusively refuted the “peaceful rise” theory. China today resembles nothing so much as Japan in the 1920s.

Keeping China’s Cold War cold: The case for PATO

As our alliance diplomacy fails in Asia, “Pentagon officials,” no doubt with some prodding from the White House, say that if the Senate confirms Mark Lippert as Ambassador to South Korea, he would redouble U.S. efforts to rebuild a trilateral alliance with Japan and South Korea.

“Trilateral” would be a very good start toward “multilateral,” and I wish the administration success. I don’t know much about Mr. Lippert, but a diplomatic vacuum now could mean war and chaos for us all, while good diplomacy could still restore peace and order in the world’s most economically dynamic region. While you’re thinking about how alarmist that was of me to write, give this Washington Post article a read. Then, try to think about soft, cuddly pandas.

Lippert’s job didn’t get any easier when Xi Jinping presumably strong-armed Park Geun-Hye into saying this:

“The basic stance of the (South Korean) government is that Japan in principle is not allowed to exercise its collective self-defense right within the Korean Theater of Operation, or KTO,” a government source said, requesting anonymity.

Apparently, Park rejects the possibility that Japan might exercise that right while protecting South Korea (among others) from China’s self-declared air defense identification zones or unilateral maritime claims, or to help it stabilize a post-collapse North Korea. Take another look at the map in the Post’s article:

1484_SouthChinaSea

[Washington Post]

It’s clear that China, in deference to the tested principle of “divide-and-rule,” has carefully avoided expanding that zone into the Yellow Sea. For now, China is content with buying the fishing rights (or simply stealing the fish).

China has been in a Cold War with us since before our Cold War with the U.S.S.R. ended. All that’s missing is our acknowledgement of that. Chinese domination of all of East Asia would cause a series of dramatic shocks to our economy, as China used its military supremacy to monopolize and tax the region’s resources, manufacturing, and trade routes. Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property would skyrocket, and China would impose its own terms on trade, and the costs of raw materials and finished goods. China would control the Strait of Molucca, and with it, our oil imports from the Middle East. The result would be our impoverishment as a nation. You think China is already doing many of those things now? Wait until it controls the entire Western Pacific.

In a few years, we may find ourselves facing a choice of defending (or not) our treaty allies in the region. (A second-worst case scenario would be finding ourselves bearing the entire cost of their defense.) Some of those allies have made the decision to appease China for now, in the hope that they can buy time. We all earnestly hope that our conflicts with China don’t become military conflicts. The best way to prevent that would be through good diplomacy that concentrates minds across the Pacific on their common interests and their collective strength, if allied to each other, and to us. That is, good diplomacy and strong alliances can deter China, prevent war, and avoid the common impoverishment of the U.S. and its Pacific allies.

I worry that John Kerry, who may be the worst Secretary of State in U.S. history, isn’t the man for that job.

None of this will work, of course, as long as Japan continues to shift the region’s focus to debates over settled history, and as long as other Asian nations continue to take Japan’s bait and elevate those debates over their own interests. Koreans can’t seem to confront the fact that Chinese men are turning North Korean women into sexual slaves today, because of the Chinese government’s own crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, Japan needs to be told in clear terms to stop hedging on its apology for the Comfort Women and other historical issues. In exchange, we’ll support its claims to Senkaku, and use forceful financial sanctions to force North Korea to return its abductees.

Just as NATO preserved the peace in Europe, we need a Pacific-Asia Treaty Organization* to preserve the peace in Asia. Of course, China would say that this alliance is meant to “contain” it, which is exactly what John Kerry is telling the Chinese we aren’t doing. But a time when China is grabbing territory and resources across East Asia is past the time for reassurances. In fact, it’s probably past time for China to reassure us.

* If it bothers you that “pato” means “duck” in Spanish, we could always use “APTO” instead.

Refugees’ lives may depend on interpretations of Sino-Korean consular agreement

Human rights advocates have long contended that China’s repatriation of North Korean refugees violates international law, including obligations China undertook voluntarily in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1969 Protocol. A U.N. Commission of Inquiry recently added its weight to that contention and strongly criticized China’s disregard of that Convention.

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[Suzanne Scholte and Rep. Park Sun-young protest
outside the Chinese Embassy in Seoul
, 2012]

Some rights advocates have hoped that the COI’s report would force China to alter its refugee-deportation policy, for reasons best explained by Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, in an interview with NK News, and by Stephan Haggard here.

These hopes are about to be tested. This week, following Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul, The Daily NK reports that eleven North Korean refugees, arrested by China on June 19th, are in grave danger of repatriation to the North. The arrests were first reported on July 3rd Korea time, as Xi arrived in Seoul. More here, via Reuters.

If only Park Geun-Hye had seen fit to raise the issue of repatriations in her meetings with Xi. If only Xi’s desire to improve relations with Seoul had potential to benefit the 23 million Koreans unfortunate enough to reside North of the DMZ. But in one of the lesser-reported outcomes of the summit, the two leaders actually signed an agreement on consular protections for each others’ citizens:

The agreement mainly calls for the two countries to notify each other within four days when a national from the other country is arrested or detained. Meeting with consular officials will be also allowed within four days, according to the sources. [Yonhap]

But what does the agreement say about North Koreans? The ROK Constitution claims the entire Korean peninsula as its territory, and Korean nationality law extends citizenship to Koreans born on Korea’s territory.* The issue was contentious enough to prevent agreement after 11 years (!) of negotiations, so the two governments eventually decided to sidestep it:

The two countries previously had made little progress as they could not bridge the gap over whether to cover North Korean defectors and Chinese living in South Korea. The concept of “a national” was not specified, which made it easier for the two parties to reach the agreement, the sources said. [Yonhap]

The two sides also failed to agree on the status of ethnic Koreans in China, who could also have standing to argue their own ROK citizenship under the ROK Nationality Law. To further complicate matters, China asked for the agreement to cover Taiwanese arrested in Korea. A cynical man would say that China raised the latter complication solely to get South Korea to drop the issue of North Korean refugees.

The negotiations received new impetus from the case of ex-leftist and rights activist Kim Young-Hwan, whom the Chinese police arrested in 2012, held for 114 days, and allegedly tortured through sleep deprivation and the administration of electric shocks. Three other South Koreans, including Daily NK correspondent Lee Sang Yong, were also arrested with Kim.

Whether Park invokes the agreement on the refugees’ behalf, and how Xi reacts, will be a test of the quality and the extent of where Park’s conscience ends, and Xi’s begins. Eleven lives hang in the balance.

* Admittedly, this is a sweeping simplification of a complex law.

Continental drift: U.S. alliances erode despite “pivot” to Asia

Xi Jingping has departed from Seoul, where he couldn’t quite bring himself to agreeing to a joint statement with Park Geun Hye calling for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

But the statement stopped short of directly urging North Korea to give up its nuclear program, only vaguely calling for all members of the six-party nuclear talks to resolve the issue through dialogue and abide by their 2005 denuclearization-for-aid deal. [Yonhap]

Some of the dire declarations I’ve seen that Xi’s visit successfully finlandized South Korea seem premature, but Xi did take one very big step in that direction when he coaxed South Korea into agreeing to set up a bank in Seoul to clear bilateral business transactions in Chinese yuan. China’s clear intention here is to undermine the global supremacy of the dollar, circumvent the power of U.S. financial sanctions, draw South Korea into China’s economic orbit, and perhaps even shield North Korea’s international transactions from the Treasury Department. More here and here.

How this new arrangement will mesh with the artificially depressed value of the yuan will be an interesting question, but China has already made similar arrangements France, the U.K., and Germany, so we can assume that (1) the problem isn’t insurmountable, and (2) the yuan is nowhere near replacing the dollar as a reserve currency in the short term. Given the extent of public corruption in China, uncertainties in China’s economy, and the broader non-convertibility of the yuan, the yuan isn’t going to be as safe a medium of exchange as the dollar anytime soon. In the longer term, however, the threat is significant. The power of the dollar may be as important to our national power as our Navy.

In the case of South Korea, there could also be shorter-term policy implications, if yuan-clearing banks begin clearing transactions for North Korea. The effect of this would be to enlist a new group of financial profiteers in Seoul to oppose financial sanctions against the North and spread China’s risk from financial sanctions to South Korea. If the U.S. wants to retain its last best non-violent option against North Korea, it will send a very clear signal to President Park and to South Korean banks opposing this idea.

One wonders if U.S. influence is so diminished that that signal would work. The presence of 25,000 U.S. troops in South Korea ought to mean something. If South Korea isn’t really interested in disarming North Korea, one wonders why they remain there. There are moments when I think the U.S. has a greater interest in neutralizing North Korea as a proliferation threat than in having South Korea as an ally. That’s especially so when one considers the financial cost of that alliance to U.S. taxpayers.

~   ~   ~

Meanwhile, North Korea’s ransom diplomacy with Japan is succeeding. It has given Japan a list of ten names of Japanese nationals, including abductees, who are still alive in North Korea. None of the abductees has met with a Japanese official or returned home, but the Japanese government has already made moves toward relaxing its sanctions against North Korea. The effect of this will be to blunt the economic pressure intended to disarm the North. The AP provides an excellent summary of Japan’s actions:

— North Korean nationals are now allowed to enter Japan, but will be screened case-by-case if a request is filed. A ban on individuals subject to the U.N sanctions remains.

— Officials of Chongryong (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan), which serves as a de-facto North Korean embassy here, can obtain re-entry permits after traveling to North Korea.

— An advisory discouraging Japanese nationals from traveling to North Korea is no longer in place.

PORT CALLS

— North Korean-registered vessels are able to enter Japanese ports but only for humanitarian purposes.

— A ban on a North Korean passenger ferry, the Mangyongbong-92, that was the only regular direct connection to Japan, stays in place.

— Port calls are limited to pickups of food, medicine and clothing and other articles for personal use only, and shipment of large quantities is not permitted. North Korean crewmembers will not be permitted ashore without prior approval.

MONEY TRANSFERS

— Remittances to groups and companies based in North Korea do not have to be reported to the government if not exceeding 30 million yen ($300,000), the same as to other countries. Under the sanctions, reporting any remittance exceeding 3 million yen ($30,000) was compulsory.

— Those visiting North Korea can now carry cash up to 1 million yen ($10,000) without having to report it to the government, up from 100,000 yen ($1,000).

EXPORTS

— Japan’s overall trade ban on North Korea remains in place.

— Freezing of assets on individuals and entities involved in missile programs, under U.N. Security Council resolutions, stay in place.

One potential source of dispute will be whether North Korea has given Japan a complete listing of surviving abductees. Some Japanese government publications I’ve read list dozens of potential abductees, and the Japanese public is unlikely to take Pyongyang’s “re-investigation” at its word. Another potential source of conflict is the pending tax sale of Chongryon’s headquarters in Japan. Finally, a nuke test could always upset things.

Japan’s sudden defection from the anti-North Korea alliance isn’t wholly the Obama Administration’s fault. The Bush Administration was the first to sideline Japan’s interest in getting its citizens back, but the Obama Administration squandered the last five years by failing to correct it and rebuild that alliance.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also bears a large share of the blame, with his revisionist dis-apology for Japan’s World War II-era atrocities — something that has proven useful to Xi Jinping in his efforts to isolate Japan and break up the U.S.-led Pacific coalition. If you want to read more on the spurious historical merits of Japan’s revisionism, Dennis Halpin has been doing some excellent writing on the subject.

If you think things couldn’t have declined much more over the last year, don’t forget Russia’s surge of investment in North Korea.

Taken together, these developments mean that U.S. leverage over North Korea and China has faded significantly over the last six months. That isn’t a very impressive set of accomplishments for an administration that allowed the Middle East to fall to the most brutal gang of terrorists since the Khmer Rouge, while ostensibly making Asia the focus of its full diplomatic attention.

We remember

tank-man-wide

[via]

Today, tens of thousands are remembering in Hong Kong. But if you read nothing else about Tienanmen today, read William Wan’s heartbreaking story about the survivors of Tienanmen, and how they struggle to talk to their children about a day that broke their bodies, their faith, and their lives forever.

N. Korea sells China fishing rights to S. Korean waters, just in time for Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul.

North Korea, in a demonstration of its unique gift for sowing mischief, has just added South Korea to the long list of Asian nations involved in maritime disputes with China. According to Yonhap, Pyongyang has just sold the fishing rights to “its” littoral waters in the Yellow Sea to China. That’s a problem for Seoul because Pyongyang defines “its” to include waters south of the Northern Limit Line, the disputed maritime extension of the western side of the Korean DMZ.

“Part of our waters in the Yellow Sea was included in the area that the North is allowing Chinese vessels to fish in,” said a military officer in Seoul, requesting anonymity. “Upon learning this, we’ve notified China of such a fact and asked them to be careful not to cross the northern limit line (NLL) into the South,” he added. [Yonhap]

North Korea has been making similar deals with China in recent years, but this is the first year North Korea has had the brass to sell China fishing rights in waters South Korea claims. More importantly, it is also the first year China has had the brass to buy them.

It’s not clear from the reports when North Korea and China signed the deal, or why it has only become public now, just before Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul.

Although South Korea is making it clear that Chinese ships aren’t welcome on its side of the NLL, its main instrument for enforcing its will there is … the South Korean Coast Guard, which President Park recently promised to abolish in retribution for its poor response to the Sewol Ferry disaster.

The move is a shrewd one on North Korea’s part. Not only does it get cash from China to pay for more cell phone trackers, barbed wire, and border guards, it also takes advantage of China’s predatory mood to get China’s de facto endorsement of the NLL’s nullity. Even better, it drives a wedge between China and South Korea at just as Xi Jinping visits Seoul, and just as North Korea’s plans for a fourth nuclear test are straining its own relations with China.

(North Korea could teach the South a thing or two about how to deal with illegal fishing.)

What’s in this for China? Fish, for starters. But is there really a danger that Chinese fishermen would cross the NLL, invade South Korean waters, and violently resist efforts to repel them?

Yonhap claims that “more than 100 Chinese vessels” are now operating near the NLL every day.

“Last year, most Chinese vessels worked north of the NLL, but recently they worked very close to the NLL and some crossed the line,” a South Korean Coast Guard official was quoted as saying. “So we dispatched additional patrol ships and special Coast Guard forces to the areas.”

South Korea’s Coast Guard has seized six Chinese boats that violated the NLL since May 19, including three 10-ton vessels on Tuesday. The South Korean government notified China of the illegal fishing and called for them to stop, the report said. [Kyodo News]

Chinese boats have a long history of entering South Korean waters, fishing illegally, and even killing South Korean Coast Guardsmen who board their vessels.

Sixty-nine South Koreans have been killed or injured since January 2003 while trying to catch Chinese ships operating illegally in South Korean waters, according to data from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. Video clips from the scenes show Chinese boats fitted with high sides and tools that can be used as weapons to block inspectors from coming aboard. [Yonhap]

According to that last article, the issue of illegal Chinese fishing in South Korean waters has also become a contentious issue in talks between South Korea and China over a proposed free-trade agreement between the two countries. South Korea wants language in the proposed FTA requiring Chinese sellers to certify that any marine products were not harvested from Korean waters illegally. China refuses to even discuss the problem, which is troubling by itself. After all, why wouldn’t China agree to stay on its side of the line if the line itself isn’t disputed?

What is China’s longer game? Those of us outside the Forbidden City can only speculate, but I’ll offer my speculation under the theory that even paranoid people have real enemies. Some context may be helpful:

first island chain

[via The Economist]

Even this map doesn’t fully represent the scale of the problem. Japan’s Senkaku Islands lie on the east side of the dashed red line, despite China’s recent assertion of claims against them. Some Chinese have also been calling for their government to assert claims to Okinawa, which hosts several large U.S. military bases. Then, there’s China’s unsettling “Northeast Project,” interpreted by some Korean and American scholars as a potential claim to North Korean territory.

If this little fishing lease is the thin end of the wedge between Korea and its territorial waters in the Yellow Sea, it would be among the least creative of China’s recent boundary reinterpretations. This year, it’s only a short-term lease (no need to be alarmed!). Maybe the next one will be for five years. After that, it will be a longer-term lease, like China’s lease of the Rajin Port. If, by the time of reunification — when Korea will have so many other problems to contend with — China has effectively grabbed up the Spratleys, the Paracels, and all the waters surrounding Taiwan, would Korea really be in any position to resist, particularly if its next President is an accommodationist from Roh Moo-Hyun’s mold?

Further south, Ieodo, a/k/a Socotra Rock, where South Korea maintains a “research” station, falls within China’s unilaterally declared Air Defense Identification Zone. China has occasionally made claims to Ieodo, although China clarified in 2013 that there is no dispute. (International law doesn’t recognize territorial claims to submerged reefs anyway, so China hasn’t really relinquished anything. It’s the maritime claims that really matter.)

It isn’t hard to see where this could all be heading. At some point in time, Chinese scholars would be enlisted to conclude that the Yellow Sea is historically Chinese, and the lease would become a permanent claim. Hey, maybe it’s all my paranoid conspiracy theory. Maybe, but how many of you had you even heard of the Senkaku Islands three years ago? And maybe China could clarify all of this by agreeing to stop fishing in South Korea’s waters, and with the geographical premise of that agreement.

For Asian nations, and for nations across the Pacific that depend on trade with them, there’s an obvious commonality of interests in preserving freedom of navigation and the protection of peaceful commerce. Protecting those interests requires the deterrence of aggressive Chinese claims to islands and waters that are controlled by China’s neighbors. Military deterrence will be an important part of that.

President Obama speaks of a “pivot” to Asia, but to the extent one sees evidence of any such pivot, it mostly consists of adding more Americans to our military presence in the Pacific. That’s better than nothing, but nowhere near as good as a new regional military alliance — an Asian NATO — to coordinate the mutual defense of those common interests, and share the risks and costs of defending those interests.

No, China did not cut off N. Korea’s oil supply (corrected).

The Chinese government has announced that Xi Jinping will visit Seoul next month without having ever visited Pyongyang, a reversal of the usual sequence. Although Asian diplomats place great value on the symbolism of such things, it is also possible to make too much of it. Still, I draw a few inferences from the announcement that may be important.

First, the announcement of Xi’s visit would pose significant complications for Pyongyang if it plans to nuke off soon. Xi would feel constrained from visiting Pyongyang soon after a nuke test, and a test shortly after Xi’s visit would be a personal humiliation to Xi. I’m not going to go so far as to say that the announcement of Xi’s visit precludes a nuke test, but it does make it less likely in the near term. It could also mean that Pyongyang will look for another way to provoke.

Second, if there is no nuke test when one seemed inevitable, it would discount the analysis of those (including the Chinese themselves) who insist that China’s influence over North Korea is insufficient to stop the latter’s nuclear program. This view would be affirmed, on the other hand, if there is a nuke test despite evidence that China had cut off (or credibly threatened to cut off) North Korea’s material and financial support. For now, that evidence is inconclusive at best, but read on.

On a superficial and symbolic level, China has been relatively distant toward Pyongyang, and is making an ostentatious display of its affection toward Seoul. Heritage’s Dean Cheng even sees signs of a rift between China and North Korea, and cites a report that China didn’t export any crude oil to North Korea for the entire first quarter of 2014. If true, this would be unprecedented.

It’s also difficult to accept as true. For one thing, it’s irreconcilable with overwhelming evidence that China isn’t enforcing U.N. sanctions and has otherwise increased trade with North Korea. According to Yonhap, despite U.N. sanctions, “North Korea’s overall trade volume reached a new annual high in 2013 due largely to growing shipments to and from its closest ally, China.”

The North’s overall trade volume came to US$7.34 billion in 2013, up 7.8 percent from the previous year, according to the state-run Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA). “It is the highest amount since KOTRA began compiling data on North Korea’s annual trade volumes in 1990,” it said in a press release. 

The country’s exports jumped 11.7 percent on-year to $3.22 billion, with imports growing 5 percent to $4.12 billion. Bilateral trade volume between North Korea and China came to $6.54 billion, accounting for 89.1 percent of the North’s overall trade in 2013.

“North Korea’s dependence on China for trade has been increasing steadily since 2005 when its trade volume with China exceeded 50 percent of its overall trade,” KOTRA said. “In addition, it shows China’s pledge to tighten its customs check on shipments to and from North Korea, in protest of North Korea’s missile launch in December 2012 and a nuclear test in February 2013, did not have any significant effect on North Korea-China trade,” it added.

The large increase in North Korea’s overall exports was attributed to growing shipments of fuel, such as coal, which surged 14.9 percent on-year to $1.43 billion, accounting for 44.4 percent of the country’s total exports. Out of all energy exports, 97.2 percent were shipped to China.

Russia, another North Korean ally, was the country’s second-largest trading partner in 2013, with bilateral trade volume spiking 37.3 percent to $104 million. [Yonhap]

Why would North Korea go on selling coal to a country that cut off its oil supply? It didn’t make any sense to me, so I held this post until I could explain the inconsistency. Thankfully, the Daily NK has done that for us, via an intrepid investigative report informing us that Chinese oil still flows freely to North Korea:

Daily NK has confirmed that China is currently supplying oil to North Korea through a pipeline running between the two. Though there have been cases where Beijing has suspended such shipments in response to North Korean intransigence, particularly over nuclear issues, but this has not happened recently.

On April 10th, Daily NK visited an oil storage and pipeline facility in Dandong. There, our team interviewed Chinese Ministry of Public Security officials guarding the facility, which is owned by a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation, or CNPC.

When asked about oil assistance to North Korea, one of the officers acknowledged, “We are continuously supplying oil (to North Korea),” but “cannot say how much we send each month or how much remains as of now.” [Daily NK]

Here’s a link to donate to the Daily NK.

So why does KOTRA show no exports in spite of this? Simple—China conveniently left it out of the trade statistics. According to the Daily NK’s sources, “these deliveries are not recorded in Chinese customs data, or in foreign trade statistics.” The Chinese give North Korea the oil for free and call it “aid,” which they don’t count in their export statistics because it’s not a commercial transaction. (One wonders whether China is paying for North Korean coal, or whether this has been restructured as a barter transaction to evade sanctions and foreign political pressure.)

What is the state of relations between China and North Korea today? I’d like to believe Cheng is right, and I can even agree that on a certain level, China is irritated with the North Koreans and with Kim Jong Un in particular, but I’m not willing to go as far as he is.

Christopher Johnson, “a former CIA China analyst” at SAIS, offers a more restrained view:

China is able to give North Korea what it wants, but the North apparently refuses to respect China’s interests in return, Johnson told foreign journalists at an event in Beijing organized by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.

“There is a lot of debate about whether China’s policy toward North Korea has changed. Personally, I think that it’s a wasted debate,” Johnson said. “My own view is that they are moving away from a traditional and special relationship with North Korea to what they call a regular and normal state-to-state relationship,” he said.

Under the definition of the normal state-to-state relationship between North Korea and China, Johnson said, “China is a great power, and North Korea is a client.” “North Korea is not behaving like a client. This is fundamentally causing all kinds of tension, among other issues, in their relationship,” he said. [Yonhap]

Aside from Johnson’s statement that the debate is wasted, I can agree with much of this. China is probably irritated with Kim Jong Un’s obnoxiousness, inappropriate timing, ineptness as a ruler, and the risk that he could become a greater liability for China. It was obviously displeased when Kim Jong Un purged many North Koreans who had close personal and economic relations with China and its state-owned enterprises. Economically speaking, South Korea is more important to China than North Korea is today.

None of this changes the fact that strategically, China has a strong interest in keeping Korea divided, with a buffer state on its border instead of a rising, prosperous, powerful, and U.S.-friendly democracy. Besides which, North Korea’s coal still isn’t mined out. Better-informed people who have regular dealings with the Chinese government have told me that different parts of China’s government represent different Chinese interests, and that they often have very different and inconsistent world views. I tend to believe them about this.

Is China is done supporting Kim Jong Un? Hardly. China would prefer that he nuke up quietly. China will pressure North Korea on the margins, to get it back under control, but China still assesses its interests with respect to North Korea as fundamentally incompatible with ours.

~   ~   ~

Updates: The original version of this post (since corrected) stated that Xi Jingping intended to visit Pyongyang after visiting Seoul. Thanks to a reader for identifying this error.

A reader (thank you!) forwarded me the KOTRA data on which Yonhap’s report was based. The truth turns out to be in between Yonhap’s report and the Daily NK’s, but much closer to the Daily NK’s version. The KOTRA data show zero crude oil exports from China to North Korea, but also show a huge increase in exports of refined petroleum products (such as gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and fuel oil) compared to last year.

Now, I suppose it could be true that China is exporting crude to North Korea without reporting it, but then, why report the exports of gasoline and jet fuel? (Could North Korea’s refining capacity be off-line for some reason?) Also, the Chinese aren’t giving these products away to the North Koreans for free. They’re charging market prices, except for jet fuel, which they’re selling for below-market prices.

The most likely explanation is that the Daily NK actually uncovered the export of refined petroleum products, and that Yonhap’s correspondent didn’t keep reading past the line item for crude. Either way, the Daily NK gets the story mostly right, while Yonhap’s report is misleading, in a way that lets China off the hook undeservedly, right before Xi Jinping visits Seoul.

China leaks contingency plan for N. Korea collapse

Last week, North Korea unexpectedly announced that Hwang Pyong So had replaced Choe Ryong-Hae as North Korea’s top military officer and number two official. Choe had held this status since the December purge of Jang Song-Thaek. It may be a complete coincidence that Kyodo News has since reported on allegedly leaked contingency plans by the Chinese Army to seal the border and protect North Korean officials from, shall we say, summarized judicial proceedings in the event of a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang, possibly due to “an attack … by foreign forces.”

Specifically, China’s plans call for setting up refugee camps just inside its border, and “for special groups be sent to border areas to ascertain the situation, investigate new arrivals, block entry to any deemed dangerous or undesirable, and counter oppositional forces.” The Chinese plans reportedly plan for camps to accommodate up to 1,500 people, which seems grossly inadequate in light of past estimates that at the peak of the famine, between 50,000 and 300,000 North Koreans may have crossed into China.

Also, Kim Jong Un’s surviving cronies may suffer a substantial degradation in their standards of living:

According to the documents, any important North Korean political or military figures who could be targeted for assassination should be given protection. But at the same time, they should be placed in special camps where their activities could be monitored to prevent them from directing military operations or engaging in other activities that could be detrimental to China’s interests.

There are also veiled threats against us:

Another scenario involves a “military power,” presumably a reference to the United States, crossing the China-North Korea border on some pretext such as countering terrorism. If diplomatic negotiations were to fail to resolve the problem, the documents say, other steps that could be taken include closing the border or carrying out cyberattacks to disrupt information networks. [Kyodo News]

Really, China? And I thought we were friends.

An expert interviewed by The Telegraph adds, “[T]he more totalitarian the regime, the harder and faster they fall.”  China has since denied the report.

Like Walter Russell Mead, I suspect the report was probably leaked deliberately, most likely by China. It would be good news if the Chinese Army really doesn’t intend to cross the border, but at the risk of sounding like Stalin in the late 30’s, the story has the whiff of disinformation about it. Most of it seems to be aimed at the North Koreans, but some of it also aimed at us. I’d be very pleasantly surprised if China didn’t also have plans to seize certain parts of North Korea — Rajin, maybe Hoeryong, Sinuiju, and the mines at Musan, in which China is heavily invested — perhaps as a bargaining chip to secure its economic investments, a guarantee of access to the Pacific ports, or a promise to keep U.S. forces out of the North.

Or, perhaps just because it wants those places and thinks it can get away with making a temporary “humanitarian” occupation into a permanent autonomous zone-slash-buffer state. This isn’t just my speculation, in case you’re wondering. It all depends on what Xi Jinping thinks he can get away with, and whether China faces enough credible threats to deter that. Aside from the risk of conflict, China could face harsh economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, but in the long term, no deterrent would be more effective than a credible threat of an anti-Chinese insurgency by the North Koreans, supported by foreign powers.

Still, China does sound uncharacteristically serious about dissuading Kim Jong Un from nuking off, given that China has spent the last eight years not enforcing North Korea sanctions. Why? I can only speculate, but one reason could be that for the first time in approximately ever, China stands to lose a great deal economically if North Korea tests. A test would likely mean a swift election-year passage of H.R. 1771, which would carry severe economic consequences for Chinese businesses and banks with financial ties to North Korea, unless they cut their links to the North immediately. The close temporal link between the introduction of H.R. 1771 (April 26, 2013) and a series of actions by big Chinese banks to distance themselves from North Korea (May 7, 2013) could be a case of either coincidence or causation, but does lend some support to my speculation.

Mead also links to Adam Garfinkle, who suggests that regional powers might one day cooperate to plot a “modulated, controlled euthanasia for the North Korean regime.” That’s one of the better diplomatic outcomes we can hope to achieve, but it’s implausible until (1) our own policy becomes clearer and more coherent, (2) we align with our allies in the region, which continue to vacillate between policies of economic pressure and economic subsidy, (3) join with them in an effective coalition to use our combined economic and diplomatic power against China and Russia, and secure their cooperation through a combination of targeted sanctions, military pressure, and diplomacy that recognizes their basic security and economic interests.

For China, holocaust denial substitutes for diplomacy

It’s offensively obtuse things like this that convince me that Chinese will eventually be as despised in North Korea as Japan is despised in South Korea, and that its profiteers won’t be safe to walk the streets of Rajin: 

“The inability of the commission to get support and cooperation from the country concerned makes it impossible for the commission to carry out its mandate in an impartial, objective and effective manner,” said Chen Chuandong, a counselor at China’s mission in Geneva. [Yonhap]

In the same spirit, how can we really be so sure the Rape of Nanking and Unit 731 weren’t figments of biased imaginations without Hideki Tojo’s “support and cooperation?” Speaking of support and cooperation, North Korea just missed another opportunity to offer it:

“So Se Pyon first interrupted a statement by the head of the Japanese Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea to challenge his right to address the council, before standing up and walking out in protest.” [AFP]

“The commission of inquiry on the DPRK is none other than a marionette representing the ill-minded purpose of its string pullers including the United States and its followers who are endeavoring to eliminate the socialist system on the pretext of human rights,” North Korea’s ambassador So Se Pyong told the U.N. rights forum this month. [Reuters]

See, if Goering had just refused to cooperate with the Nuremberg Tribunal, he’d have lived out his autumn years shooting up smack in his hunting lodge in the Black Forest.

Inquiry leader Kirby said it is time to act rather than talk. “What is unique has been the capacity of North Korea to avoid international scrutiny, to avoid examination of its record over such a long time, effectively 60 years of very great wrongs against its population,” he told Reuters.

“Now we have a full volume book that tells it all in a comprehensive manner. The moment of truth has approached. We must turn it into action,” he added.

Human rights were among the founding principles of the United Nations in the wake of World War Two, after discovery of atrocities against Jews and minorities, he said. He wants North Korea referred to the ICC or to a special ad hoc tribunal. [Reuters]

Modern-day Japan, notwithstanding its problems coming to terms with its past crimes against humanity, is at least leading the effort at the U.N. to hold North Korea accountable for crimes against humanity in the present tense. Modern-day China is doing its best to aid, abet, and perpetrate them:

China strongly criticized Tuesday a high-profile U.N. report on human rights situations in North Korea that said Beijing may be “aiding crimes against humanity” by repatriating North Korean defectors to their homeland against their will.

“We totally cannot accept this accusation,” China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, a day after U.N. investigators condemned North Korea for widespread human rights abuses under the leadership of Kim Jong-un.

China, the North’s key ally, has considered tens of thousands of North Koreans hiding in the border areas as illegal migrants, not asylum-seekers, and routinely sends them back to North Korea, where they face harsh penalties, even death.

Hua repeated China’s stance on North Korean defectors, saying Beijing views them as “illegal border-crossers,” not “defectors,” therefore not subject to protection. [Yonhap]

This is why I can’t understand why anyone — least of all, any Korean — could plausibly see modern-day Japan as a threat to peace, or fail to see China as a threat to peace, or as an imminent and mortal threat to the lives and dignity of 23 million Koreans. Oh, those are North Koreans? In that case, never mind.

U.N. Commission should find China responsible for crimes against humanity, too.

China is denying reports that it arrested 15 North Korean refugees near Kunming. According to the Chosun Ilbo, the refugees have been moved to areas near the North Korean border. Some may have been repatriated already, along with other refugees rounded up near Shenyang. If so, their fate inside North Korea is grim.

As the Chinese government already knows, and has for years.

I don’t know what, exactly, I should read from the fact that North Korea is loudly calling for China to return its escaped subjects. Ordinarily, North Korea doesn’t even have to ask. Perhaps China is unusually concerned about damage to its image, although there’s little evidence to suggest that right now.

It does, however, leads me to wonder what the U.N. Commission of Inquiry will have to say about China’s repatriation of North Korean refugees, now that we know that the COI will find that North Korea committed crimes against humanity.

China’s complicity, of course, is what locks the gate to the prison state. Declaring North Korea’s responsibility is an overdue first step, but if the COI is willing to something brave and potentially useful, it should also find China responsible for crimes against humanity, for violating its own obligations under the Refugee Convention.

The COI’s findings may well lead to charges before the International Criminal Court. Family members of Korean War abductees are taking North Korea to the ICC for unlawful detention. Certainly China has repatriated some of these very South Koreans to the North. Abductee family members and the family members of other North Korean refugees have just as good a basis to sue China before the ICC.

Can you identify this aircraft?

I always thought I knew my airplanes, but I’ve searched through everything known to be in the Chinese inventory, and I cannot identify this one.

Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 7.14.58 AM

Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 7.14.09 AM

This is a PLAF (Chinese) air base, just across the river from Sinuiju, North Korea.

Why rising rice prices probably don’t mean that China is enforcing U.N. sanctions.

Hope springs eternal.  I said recently that it wouldn’t surprise me to see China temporarily restrict trade with / aid to North Korea to mislead us into thinking that it’s really pressuring North Korea to disarm, thereby slowing the momentum here to legislate what Glyn Davies calls “national” sanctions.  This trick works so well because so many of us so desperately want to believe that China will give us an easy out.  Witness this report, via Korea Real Time, that rice prices have risen in Pyongyang, linking it to a crackdown by Chinese customs.  Does this mean that China is finally saving us from having to deal with North Korea?  Can we get back to pretending this isn’t our problem?  No?  Here are some reasons why this story could mean a lot of other things, aside from the thing we wish it meant.

1.  Grain prices always rice in North Korea at this time every year.  In the spring, North Korea’s winter stocks of food start to run out, and nothing has sprouted from the ground yet.

2.  North Korean traders who supply its jangmadang have become very sophisticated speculators who know enough to link missile and nuclear tests to temporary crackdowns on cross-border flows of merchandise.  If the traders also noticed increased scrutiny by Chinese customs, the price rises would be more speculation than a function of supply and demand.

3.  How do you measure prices at all in a place like North Korea?  In terms of North Korean currency, or in terms of the Chinese yuan, which has increasingly become the de facto currency of North Korea’s people’s economy since the Great Confiscation of 2009?  In a lengthy post, Chris Green makes the case that yuan-based rice prices have risen steadily since then, but that the rise may be more indicative of shifting exchange rates as North Korea’s “people’s economy” transitions to one based on the yuan.

4.  Recently, Yonhap reported that North Korean grain imports from China plunged between December and January, after North Korea’s latest missile test but before its nuclear test.  This wouldn’t be North Korea if we didn’t have some contradictory evidence to harmonize — in this case, a Daily NK report that North Korea recalled some of its purchasing agents from China in December, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s assumption of room temperature (even in death, he’s still starving them).  But rice is an elite food in North Korea, and if (presumably state-employed) traders were called off the street in December, it makes sense that there would be fewer deliveries on transactions in January.

5.  If China were really cooperating with sanctions against North Korea, I’d say food is about the last thing we should expect them to crack down on.  Although there is some evidence that food shortages are a factor in falling morale and rising defections among front-line NKPA units, the regime almost certainly sees hunger as a highly effective tool of control.  Hungry people are listless, passive, and easy to control.

Again, I don’t foreclose the possibility that China is temporarily pressuring, or will temporarily pressure, North Korea on aid and trade.  That’s in China’s interests, even if (especially if!) you view them as cynically as I do.  Still, there are several other explanations for the price rise that are functions of North Korea’s own political and economic policies, and the consequent tendency for North Korean markets to be vulnerable to supply disruption and speculation.