Archive for China & Korea

China’s bridge to nowhere?

The AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief reports that as China completes a $350 million bridge across the Yalu River from Dandong to Sinuiju, and weeks after its announced opening date, the North Korean side is largely an unfinished abutment.

Now, it is beginning to look like Beijing has built a bridge to nowhere.

An Associated Press Television News crew in September saw nothing but a dirt ramp at the North Korean end of the bridge, surrounded by open fields. No immigration or customs buildings could be seen. Roads to the bridge had not been completed.

The much-awaited opening of the new bridge over the Yalu River came and passed on Oct. 30 with no sign the link would be ready for business anytime soon. That prompted an unusually sharp report in the Global Times — a newspaper affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party — quoting residents in the Chinese city of Dandong expressing anger over delays in what they had hoped would be an economic boom for their border city.

The report suggested the opening of the mammoth, 3-kilometer bridge has been postponed “indefinitely.” Beijing and Pyongyang have made no official comment. [….]

The bridge — which, from the start, appears to have been of more interest to China than to North Korea — is intended to provide a new connection between Dandong and the special economic development zone in North Korea’s Sinuiju. More broadly, China wants to develop inroads with North Korea that will allow its landlocked northeastern provinces access to North Korean ports so its goods can be exported or shipped down the Chinese coastline more cheaply. [AP, Eric Talmadge]

It’s an interesting enough report, but so soon after one of Talmadge’s colleagues felt the need to discredit “defectors” and guerrilla media, I can’t help noting that the first report I saw that North Korea wasn’t completing its side of the bridge was in The Daily NK, back in July:

“The Chosun side took on the job of constructing the roads, but they are making painfully slow work of it. Because the roads are still not finished, people are wondering whether their initial aim of increasing trade volumes is on its way down the drain,” a source close to the project told Daily NK on the 1st.

“China provided a lot of materials and machinery to the North, but there is a story that this machinery was sent for use on other projects rather than for the bridge construction. The Chinese traders who did harbor high hopes for [economic] opening brought on by the bridge are showing their disappointment more and more,” the source explained. [….]

This declining enthusiasm is tangible in the property market in Langtou, the region of Dandong that ought to benefit the most from bilateral economic activity across the new bridge. “Apartment prices remain where they were three years ago, at roughly 4000 Yuan per pyeong,” explained the source. Pyeong is a Korean unit of measuring area, and amounts to 3.305785m². [….]

In addition to problems with the bridge, Daily NK established in May that almost no progress has been made on the development of two Special Economic Zones in the Sinuiju area (see linked article).

Then, last month, China’s Global Times further corroborated the story:

In the story headlined, “Opening Day of New China-North Korea Yalu River Bridge Indefinitely Delayed,” the Global Times newspaper reported that the bridge had been “fully completed and put into use on Oct. 30. However, it all becomes uncertain.”

Zhang Hui, chairman of a Chinese construction company behind the bridge, told the newspaper that, “Due to various reasons, construction was delayed for nearly a year.”

It was unclear whether Zhang’s comments indicated that the opening of the bridge has been delayed by one year. [via Yonhap]

In my experience, the most frequent propagators of apocryphal stories about North Korea aren’t guerrilla journalists, but the lower reaches of the British media ecosystem and “established” South Korean papers that cite anonymous sources.

As for the bridge itself, I wouldn’t be too quick to write it off as a failure just yet. China’s real purpose for it may have more to do with contingency planning and future colonial administration than trade.

bridge

[Times of London]

North Korea’s failure to prioritize the project is curious. Maybe, in due course, it will get around to building those road links and customs checkpoints. Even if North Korea regulates the traffic across the bridge strictly and meters it down to a trickle, having this infrastructure available for the use of controlled and preferred trade would seem to serve the interests of the state capitalists in Pyongyang. Still, I can see why Kim Jong Un might think he’s already dependent enough on trade with China, and why he might see the rapid expansion of trade as risky:

“[China]’s not even shepherding anymore. It’s more of just inundating North Korea with all of these influences from the Chinese side where the idea is to essentially corrupt them, show them what it tastes like to make money,” said John Park, a North Korea expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard Kennedy School. [Reuters, Apr. 2013]

For whatever reason, this bridge isn’t Kim Jong Un’s highest priority right now, and Kim Jong Un’s highest priorities get done with Masikryeong speed. Time will tell whether he’s actively resisting or delaying it, and how long it will sit unused, like the Ryugyong Hotel. That would be a potent symbol indeed of the failure of the premises behind the Sunshine Policy.

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Update: More here, at NK News.

NIS: China oil-cutoff story was bogus

China is secretly providing North Korea with oil, with shipments over the border either intentionally omitted from its export statistics or broadly identified as aid, according to South Korean intelligence officials.

Customs data released by Beijing indicates that no crude oil went over the border to North Korea in the first nine months of the year, although analysts in Seoul say that such a drastic halt in imports would have played havoc with the North’s industrial capability and its military forces.

Instead, analysts point out, industry appears to operating as usual and the military has to be unaffected by any shortages of fuel.

“Without China providing crude oil, the operation of many of North Korea’s industrial facilities and vehicles would have been suspended,” intelligence sources told Yonhap news agency. “But there have been no such indications as yet.” [The Telegraph, Julian Ryall]

Isn’t that what I’ve been saying for months? Frankly, I wouldn’t want to see an oil embargo enforced against North Korea, except with respect to some very specific refined petroleum products that didn’t also have agricultural uses.

China arrests 11 more N. Korean refugees

Eleven North Korean defectors were arrested by Chinese police while seeking to cross the border with Myanmar, a source said Friday.

Local police rounded up the defectors — 10 adults and a seven-year-old child — at around 3-4 a.m. on the day, shortly before they were to head towards the border in the southern region of Yunnan Province, according to the source.

They were immediately put in custody in a police station there, added the source.

A South Korean foreign ministry official said the government is still trying to determine the exact details of the situation. [Yonhap]

For China to do this, even as the U.N. debates action on a Commission of Inquiry report that called on China to grant asylum to North Korean refugees and stop repatriating them, tells you all you need to know about China’s contempt for human rights, and how it will vote in the Security Council.

Perhaps it’s time to start talking about alternatives like a special tribunal, and actions to block the assets of Chinese officials and agencies responsible for these repatriations. If no one talks about alternatives like these, it’s a sure bet that China will feel safe to veto any U.N. action with impunity.

Kirby presses China to support ICC referral of North Korea

Western diplomats say China, North Korea’s principal protector on the UN Security Council, will likely use its veto power there to knock down any attempt to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

But Michael Kirby, a former Australian judge who led the independent UN inquiry into alleged human rights abuses in North Korea, told reporters at UN headquarters that it was by no means certain if Beijing would block an ICC referral. “I don’t think a veto should be assumed,” Kirby said. “China is a very great pal with great responsibilities as a permanent member. Veto is not the way China does international diplomacy. China tends to find another way.” [Joongang Ilbo, via Reuters]

I suspect that the Korean reporter mistook Kirby’s Australian pronunciation of “power” for “pal.” If not, the word “pal” must have some completely different meaning in the Australian vernacular. Because China is nobody’s pal.

China will never agree, of course, but I hope Justice Kirby keeps bringing the subject up every time a microphone or a camera finds him. On this subject—and plenty of others—China deserves all the infamy its gets, and exposing its unreasonable positions raises the cost of its support for Kim Jong Un and his crimes against humanity. It will also help persuade other nations to seek out and join in alternative, multilateral strategies for sanctioning North Korea.

30% fewer N. Korean companies exhibiting at trade fair in Dandong

Yonhap attributes this to chillier relations between China and North Korea. That may be, and it may also be that the network of North Korean vendors uprooted by Jang Song Thaek’s purge hasn’t fully recovered. A third possible explanation is that China may prefer to avoid repeating the embarrassment of another revelation by the U.N. Panel of Experts that it was allowing North Korean companies involved in proliferation to exhibit openly at another trade fair last year. The knowledge that there are gweilos with cameras about may have changed their perspective.

Also from Dandong, CNN reports that there are still smugglers operating there, but that it has also become a nest of North Korean regime spies.

Chinese behave badly in South Korea, and it doesn’t end well for them (updated).

It looks like the South Koreans may have learned something from their northern cousins about how you deal with illegal fishing by the Chinese. For years, Chinese fishermen have entered South Korean waters illegally and violently resisted arrest by the South Korean Coast Guard. In 2011, a Chinese fishermen stabbed and killed a ROK coastie who was trying to board his vessel.

This week, ten the Coast Guardsmen boarded a Chinese boat fishing illegally in Korean waters, and this happened:

“At 8:07 a.m., the officers gained control of the ship and began moving into a safer zone. At 8:11 a.m., the ship had to stop due to an internal malfunction. Taking advantage of the stop, four Chinese vessels nearby flanked the ship on the left and right, with two ships on each side. Chinese fishermen from the four vessels then began exercising violence against the officers,” said Choi Chang-sam, head of the Mokpo Coast Guard during a press briefing yesterday.

In explaining as to what led to the use of deadly force, Choi said the Chinese threatened the officers with knives and beer bottles and tried to choke the officers. The officers fired three warning blanks before they shot eight times to subdue the attackers. The Coast Guard said the deceased fisherman was the captain of one of the three vessels that came to rescue the seized fishing ship from the Koreans. [Joongang Ilbo]

The captain was hit in the abdomen, so the Coast Guard called a helicopter and flew him to a hospital in Mokpo, but unfortunately for the captain and his family, he didn’t make it. Five South Korean coasties were also injured in the brawl and were treated in the same hospital.

chinese boats, via AFP getty images and The Guardian

[AFP/Getty Images, via The Guardian]

A Chinese government mouthpiece called for an investigation, denounced the coasties’ “violent execution of laws,” and “demanded stern punishment for those responsible,” which is the natural reaction of a government so justly esteemed for the tender mercy of its own law enforcement. Anyway, here’s the ChiCom side of the story, via China Central Television:

No word on what plans the Chinese government has to keep its fisherman out of Korean waters or warn them about the perils of resisting arrest in the savage police state known as South Korea, but maybe this incident will help get the point across — never get between a Korean and his haemul-ttang.

According to The Joongang Ilbo, the incident happened somewhere 89 nautical miles west of the tiny islet of Wangdeung, the home of a radio mast and no human habitation, but just a few miles east of the populated island of Anma-do. The vertical yellow line on this map is 89 nautical miles west of there, and as you can see, it’s closer to Korea than China.

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 10.13.51 AM

Ordinarily, a country’s exclusive economic zone — which includes fishing rights — extends for 200 nautical miles from its coast line, but the Yellow Sea isn’t wide enough for that, and the two countries’ EEZ claims overlap, most notably around the reef known as Ieodo. Unfortunately for Korea, China has an expansive unilateral interpretation of its own EEZ.

Even so, one thing you don’t hear the Chinese saying is that the waters were theirs, or disputed. Nor do they deny that the Chinese boat was fishing illegally, other than to call the incident the result of “an alleged crackdown on illegal fishing.” (Note to CCTV: I think we can stipulate to the existence of a crackdown.)

The Chinese also called for “harsh punishment” of the coasties, despite their acknowledgement of the need for an investigation, and despite the fact that all of the available evidence tells us that the coasties were defending themselves against violent and orchestrated resistance to a lawful arrest.

Speaking of things Chinese people wouldn’t dare do in China, Korea has just deported a Chinese student for violating the National Security law:

According to South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, the student came to South Korea from Guangdong Province in late 2012 to learn Korean. During his stay he posted messages on Facebook that slammed South Korea and lauded North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to the report.

Praising the North is a crime in the South under the National Security Law, which bars “anti-government” activities.

The student’s postings, written in Korean and Chinese, continued until his deportation, and mostly contained messages that solely represented Pyongyang’s position on issues, the Chosun report said, citing an unnamed ministry official. [Jeyup Kwaak, Korea Real Time]

Oddly enough, the Chinese captain and the Chinese student both had the same surname — “Song.”

As much as I dislike the idea of using any kind of legal sanction against non-violent speech, I’m ambivalent about this, because governments should have the right, within reason, to exclude or deport non-citizens who advocate for ideologies that necessarily involve the overthrow of the host nation’s government. Lest you ask, “What’s the harm?,” just look at the consequence of Europe not doing that, or recall the 2008 Olympic Torch Riots in Seoul, which may or may not have been organized by the Chinese government. For that matter, the ChiComs aren’t known for their tolerance of actual journalists who propagate “incorrect” views in China.

Unlike Korean citizens, Chinese don’t have a right to free speech under the ROK Constitution — much less their own. If you don’t see China protesting this incident, it may be because (a) China would rather not admit that Song was doing their bidding, or (b) if Song wasn’t doing their bidding, China would rather not let Korea become for politically repressed Chinese youth what Tijuana is for sexually repressed American youth. If Mr. Song wants the right to speak freely, then by all means, let him gather some friends, take to the streets of Beijing, and demand it.

~   ~   ~

Update: China demands the release of three arrested fishermen. How about in five to ten, with good behavior, plus regular conjugal visits?

More criticism of North Korea appears in the Chinese press

It will take more than this and this to convince me that China has tipped away from its support for North Korea, but a growing movement to take on North Korea’s crimes against humanity in the U.N., and a growing threat of secondary sanctions in our own Congress, have made North Korea a greater liability for China than ever before.

In the same sense that North Korea has been forced to shift its tone on human rights and feign willingness to engage in sincere dialogue about the subject, China is probably calculating that it has to convince influential foreigners that it’s finally ready — no, this time, we really mean it! — to pressure North Korea to behave.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Even Chinese government newspapers are talking about North Korea’s camps now.

Adam Cathcart forwards this link, which contains some rather familiar-looking imagery.

I wonder how many Chinese people know how important a part their own government plays in filling those camps.

N. Korea seizes another Chinese fishing boat.

For once, I’m mostly in sympathy with North Korea’s position. Chinese fisherman are notorious for invading the territorial waters of their neighbors, the Chinese government may well have grander plans to invade them, and the North Korean people certainly need those fish more than the Chinese do. (Leave aside the question of whether the fish would otherwise be eaten by hungry North Koreans or exported by the regime for hard currency.)

The North Koreans have impounded the ship, pending payment of a $40,000 fine, and sent the six crew members home — after they beat a confession out of the captain at gunpoint:

The captain also claimed that his ship did not enter North Korean waters at the time of the seizure and the North Korean coast guard dragged them into the North’s waters by force.

After arriving in the North’s waters, North Korean coast guard officers took photographs of them as “evidence” and ordered Yao to sign a document admitting the violation.

“I said no. And they hit me and pointed a gun at me. Then I signed,” Yao was quoted as saying in the online report. [Yonhap]

As a former defense attorney, I have to say this is one of the unlikelier stories I’ve ever heard. The North Koreans accuse the Chinese vessel of illegal fishing, and I believe them. The Chinese captain accuses the North Koreans of torture, and I believe that, too. As Kissinger once said, “It’s a pity they can’t both lose.”

The last time this happened, it wasn’t a very good experience for the Chinese fisherman, either — they spent two weeks in a North Korean jail. Still no comment from noted Chinese fish authority and asshole Shen Dingli.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.