China-North Korean Relations of the Last Year in Review

21.04.2017 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

23423123123Touching upon the topic of difficulties with the PRC and RK, we will talk about the DPRK. Here, on the one hand, Beijing demonstrates loyalty to the UN resolutions on sanctions, which it can formally fulfill; on the other, it does not go beyond them.

As Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang said on November 25, 2016, “China fully and unswervingly observes the Security Council resolutions on sanctions against the DPRK. At the same time, we believe that the Security Council sanctions against the DPRK should not have a negative impact on the life of the population and the humanitarian needs of the DPRK. Security Council Resolution 2270 prohibits North Korea from exporting coal, iron and iron ore to other countries. At the same time, exports aimed at meeting the needs of people’s lives and not aimed at financing the nuclear and missile program are not affected. China imports coal from the DPRK in line with the Security Council resolution. ”

The issue was related to the fact that, as it turned out, in October 2016, China’s imports of coal from the DPRK increased by 40% compared to September. As reported in the Chinese customs department on November 25, 2016, in October the volume of China-North Korean trade grew by 21.1% in the last year and amounted to 525 million 240 thousand dollars. At the same time, the volume of North Korean imports increased by 27.6%, reaching 238 million 380 thousand dollars, while the export to the DPRK increased by 16.1%. Thus, bilateral trade grew for the third month in a row.

Since December 11, China temporarily banned the import of North Korean coal until the end of the year. This was due to the fact that the new UN Security Council resolution limits coal exports to $ 55 million or 1 million tons by the end of 2016. The limit for 2017 is 400 million 900 thousand dollars or 7.5 million tons of coal.

On December 23, the customs department informed that within the framework of the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 2321, from December 24 onwards, the import of such North Korean mineral resources as copper, nickel, silver and zinc will be suspended. Moreover, it is prohibited to import large-scale North Korean sculptures without permission, as well as the export of helicopters and ships of Chinese manufacture. And since the ban on imports of North Korean minerals to China was not specified, Seoul concluded that this was permanent.

So, on the whole, according to the estimates of the Hyundai Institute, the DPRK’s trade with China in the past year decreased by 16.8% to $5.71 billion, compared to 2014, which is associated with a fall in exports of natural resources from North Korea to China.

On January 25, 2017, as part of the implementation of the same Resolution 2321, the Ministry of Commerce of China published a list of dual-use goods and technologies banned for export to the North. The list includes products, materials, equipment and technologies that can be used in the creation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, as well as software that can be used to create missiles and aircraft, metals for multilayer plates, high-speed video cameras, telecommunications devices, laser installations, sensors, and aviation navigation equipment.

And on February 19, 2017, on the official website of the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China, a notice was issued that, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2321, China has suspended the import of coal from the DPRK until the end of 2017. In response, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) distributed a commentary on “a neighboring country that used to call itself friendly”. The authors of the text note that this country “began to dance to the tune of the United States.” As Pyongyang believes, this country “committed an inhuman act that had a negative impact on the standard of living of the population by imposing a ban on trade with the DPRK” in accordance with the resolution of the UN Security Council. Such measures, it is noted in the commentary, “are equivalent to the actions of the enemies of the DPRK who are seeking to overthrow the social order in the People’s Republic.”

The reason for such a step taken by Beijing could be both a demonstration of their following the UN policy, and an informal response to the launch of a solid-fuel missile, or, to a lesser extent, the death of Kim Jong-nam, of which Pyongyang is accused. It is not ruled out that the PRC is increasing its pressure, showing that its policy in Korea is oriented equally and is not aimed at supporting one Korean state against another.

In parallel, China has tightened its means of control over the border with the DPRK and the identification of North Korean refugees. Such data were obtained from the results of data collection by the KBS TV and radio company. All the northerners detained by local law enforcement agencies immediately crossed back, and the process of transferring the defectors caught in China has accelerated in the DPRK. If earlier this required the transfer of documents, now the North Korean authorities omit this process, taking the detainees immediately.

What is interesting in this sense is another sham bulletin from Radio Free Asia that China is actively building a large military base that will be located directly opposite the border with North Korea. However, other sources could not confirm the situation, and as a result, it turned out that border barriers, including barbed wire, had been checked and strengthened on the Chinese side of the border. Another false story dated at the beginning of April 2017 that demanded a special refutation by the PLA, said that Chinese troops were preparing to invade the North, and were already amassing troops on the Chinese-North Korean border.

However, in parallel with this we see something else. On February 17, 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the Munich Security Conference: “We saw nuclear tests and then sanctions, sanctions and nuclear tests. This is a vicious circle and it must be broken, because in the end everyone loses. ”

Wang Yi believes that it is necessary to use opportunities for diplomacy as much as possible and to re-engage the interested parties, the United States and the DPRK, at the negotiating table.

This same thought was voiced during the talks between Wang Yi and Rex Tillerson. On March 18, 2017, Wang Yi called for the resumption of six-party talks with the DPRK, stressing that the essence of the problem lies in the contradictions between Washington and Pyongyang: “I would like to emphasize that, despite the fact that all UN resolutions on the DPRK each envisaged increasingly stringent sanctions, they also clearly called for the creation of conditions for the resumption of the six-party talks to de-escalate the situation and ensure stability on the peninsula. It is the duty of all countries to carry out sanctions and at the same time to resume negotiations.”

In the opinion of the PRC, it is the exhaustion of the means for diplomatic and political dialogue that led to the current crisis: “We can either allow further escalation of the situation, which will ultimately lead to conflict, or we can strictly follow the provisions of the UN Security Council resolutions and look for ways to resume dialogue and return to the path of negotiations.”

No less important was China’s proposal to the DPRK: to suspend its missile launches and the development of the nuclear program in exchange for suspending military exercises of the United States and South Korea: “our priority now is to abandon these two trends.” De facto, representatives of the DPRK have long spoken with similar ideas. The idea of ​​freezing the missile program in response to the suspension of regular joint exercises was advanced by them for several years, and the author agrees that such a simultaneous step back would help alleviate tension. Moreover, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi said following the visit of Chairman Xi Jinping to the United States, this concept was brought to the US President directly during the summit.

Diplomatic contact between Pyongyang and Beijing is not at zero either. From February 28 to March 4, a representative delegation headed by Deputy Minister Li Gil Son visited the People’s Republic of China. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin and Assistant Foreign Minister Kun Xuanwu met. As was noted later, the parties held an “exchange of views on relations between the PRC and the DPRK, as well as international and regional issues of mutual interest.” As Wang Yi said at the meeting, the development and strengthening of traditional friendly relations with Pyongyang is Beijing’s unchanging position: “China intends to strengthen contacts with the DPRK, improve mutual understanding, promote healthy and stable development of relations between the two countries.” Li Gil Song also noted that Pyongyang would like to stay in strong contact with the PRC on the situation on the Korean peninsula.

As the Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a subsequent communique, “the meetings and talks between the PRC and the DPRK show that China as a Northeast Asian country, on the basis of the principles of mutual respect, cooperation and common advantage, maintains contacts and coordinated efforts with other countries in the region, promotes exchange and cooperation with them. … We are ready, together with interested states, to strive for the implementation of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the maintenance of peace and stability in the region, and the assistance in resolving existing problems through dialogue and consultation.”

It is no less important, the author believes, that the Foreign Ministry spokesman parried the question of whether the murder case of Kim Jong-nam was touched upon during the negotiations, saying “we will publish relevant reports at the appropriate time.”

It can be considered significant news that with the ban on charter flights to RK and “in order to respond to the growing flow of tourists to the DPRK,” the Chinese authorities gave permission to open a new charter route from Dandong to Pyongyang. The airline that will fly there is Air Koryo, whose use, on the contrary, was supposed to be limited in the context of unilateral sanctions. Moreover, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang called the opening of the flight “an ordinary event.” Lu Kang also noted that the PRC is against the development of nuclear weapons in the DPRK, but the support of normal relations between China and the DPRK cannot be criticized.

Thus, the PRC’s policy towards the two Korean states remains equally-oriented, and I would like to quote Hua Chunying’s remark of March 15, 2017, which highlights its essence: the situation on the Korean Peninsula is extremely tense. China hopes that the parties concerned will show respect for the positions of the countries of the region (read: PRC), take into account their interests in terms of ensuring national security, show proper responsibility and resort to measures that will help to remove the growing tension in East Asia.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.