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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Initial Chinese Reactions to the Test

by | February 20th, 2013 | 07:00 am
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Official Chinese statements about the nuclear test are so bland and formulaic that analysts are reduced to parsing non-official sources that may or may not reflect actual policy. Given that China’s policy intellectuals have pretty wide latitude these days, these exercises can easily result in faulty inference or worse: wishful thinking. Scanning the commentary is not altogether useless, as it helps identify the scope of the debate. But real caution is required.

Let’s start with the official end of the spectrum. On February 13th, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an official statement on the test. The reaction was not tucked into a staged press briefing. The statement was unequivocal. The test was undertaken “in disregard of the common opposition of the international community” and China was “firmly opposed.” The Ministry urged the DPRK to honor “its commitment to denuclearization,” a veiled reference to the September 2005 Joint Statement; since that time, it has been harder to find any reference to a North Korean “commitment” to denuclearization and the regime has disavowed the Joint Statement.  The statement closes with plea for all sides to be “cool-headed” and return to the Six Party Talks, which Pyongyang has also disavowed.

China also summoned the North Korean ambassador following the test, presumably not to congratulate him; this public move was a departure.

However, the official position with respect to collective action is subtly different, and can be seen in the text of its statement on UNSC 2087. The condemnation of the launch is equally unequivocal, but “China believes that the UN Security Council’s reaction should be prudent, moderate and conducive to peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula so as to avoid escalating the tension.” According to the statement, the test underscores the “urgency and necessity of fundamentally resolving the Korean Peninsula issue,” suggesting the government’s belief that denuclearization should be seen as a part of a broader resolution on the peninsula. Fair enough.

On one other point, however, the Ministry is equally unequivocal; in a strongly-worded statement  on the draft Iran, the DPRK and Syria Nonproliferation Act, the Ministry denounced any effort to move toward secondary sanctions that would target Chinese companies doing business with North Korea. In its defense, the statement noted that “China has put in place a whole set of laws and measures on export control which are in conformity with those of the international community and have been rigorously and effectively enforced.”

This statement is triply misleading. First, while China has put some laws and measures in place that are “in conformity with the international community,” that claim borders on tautology: Chinese laws and measures are in conformity with international norms in part because international norms have had to conform to the threat of a Chinese UNSC veto. As a result, sanctions on North Korea are weaker than other parties would prefer. Not only do they avoid North Korea’s commercial trade, but the fail to control crucial dual-use technologies as well.

Second, it is not true that Chinese laws conform with UNSC statute. China has never publicly produced a luxury good sanctions list, for example, despite the fact that luxury goods were sanctioned under UNSC 1874. When asked by an investigative journalist posing as a businessman to provide one to clarify that he would be acting within the law, the government could not. According to journalists who visited the border, Chinese customs officials make no effort to enforce these controls.  As a result, luxury goods exports to the DPRK have risen monotonically for years; we have documented this point in some detail. 

And then there is the problem of enforcement on other sanctions, which has also been leaky. Remember those missile transporters? Such an item should not be hard to spot. What else is getting in under the radar?

So much for the official statements. Moving to what might be called “quasi-official” statements, we can see a range of opinion from the right—defensive of North Korea—to observers who see the country as a liability. Shan Jung—often taken as an official nom de plum—offered a much different analysis of where Chinese thinking actually is for Xinhua (English summary by UPI here.) Recognizing North Korean defiance, the editorial dismissed arguments that the test might have to do with extortion or domestic political economy reasons: “At a superficial level, it was Pyongyang that has repeatedly breached U.N. resolutions and used its nuclear program as a weapon to challenge the world community,” the analysis said. But at a deeper level, the real culprit was the US and its allies: “defiance was deeply rooted in its strong sense of insecurity after years of confrontation with South Korea, Japan and a militarily more superior United States.”

North Korea watchers seized on a Reuters story citing an unnamed source that China had been told that North Korea would continue to test unless the US returned to negotiations. In short, the test was a way to get back to the Six Party Talks. This seemed even closer to outright disinformation to us. Pressure is clearly mounting on China to do something about the DPRK: at the UNSC in the short-run; through South Korean, Japanese and US diplomatic and military cooperation over the medium-run. Beijing has been mind-numbing in is recitation of the need to get back to the Six Party Talks; the piece even piques our interest by suggesting the North Koreans are going to undertake productivity-enhancing agriculture reforms. If the US would just make the first move…

But there is one small problem: outside this unnamed source, there is no evidence from North Korean public statements–for either domestic or foreign consumption—that the regime is interested in negotiations about denuclearization. If they are interested in negotiations, they are about a peace regime that would finesse the issue of the country’s nuclear status altogether. North Korea has renounced the September 2005 Joint Statement as well as the Six Party Talks and has stated unequivocally that the country plans on maintaining and developing its deterrent capabilities. And as we have said repeatedly, signs of reform are virtually impossible to find unless we mean securing more Chinese foreign investment.

The Reuters lead should be pursued diplomatically. The US should continue to signal its willingness to engage in meaningful talks. If Beijing has information that is relevant, then it should share it with the United States and play the honest broker role. But until an interest in negotiations comes out of the mouth of a Chinese (or North Korean) official to an American counterpart, we have absolutely no idea whether it is true.

It has been possible to find more critical pieces, to be sure; whether they mean anything is another issue. North Korea watchers seized on a Global Times editorial that suggested China might sanction North Korea for a test.  And they may. But a close reading of the piece reveals a much more cynical view: that China should not assume responsibility for the Korean peninsula, it should balance any aggressive actions by the US and a festering North Korea problem is not a prelude to Armageddon (“China hopes for a stable peninsula, but it’s not the end of the world if there’s trouble there. This should be the baseline of China’s position.”)

One bit of journalistic forensics by Adam Cathcart deserves particular mention as it suggests the limits on the debate.  On February 2—prior to the test–Zhu Feng published a piece in the Lianhe Zaobao in Singapore that offered up an incredibly detailed critique of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, arguing that they did damage to Chinese strategic interests. When republished in the Global Times, however, Cathcart shows that much of the sting was taken out of the piece, for example by removing reference to critical statements made by the Chinese leadership and downplaying the strategic costs China pays. We have no idea of whether these changes came from Global Times editors or the censors. And no less than Dengli Shen—one of the most prominent America watchers in the country and hardly a pushover—has written a piece in Foreign Policy suggesting China should dump North Korea. But it is not implausible that Zhu Feng went too far, suggesting that these critiques do not yet line up with official policy.

Finally, there is the question of what is actually going on at the border. If China chooses to act, it will not do so in a public way but with quiet but clear measures that will be visible to the North Koreans; a story in Caijing, citing Korean sources no one can track down, suggests China may pull the plug on some investments in Rason as a signal . In pursuing such actions, Beijing faces a complex set of regional calculations about the Northeast. On the one hand, at least some residents of the region were not pleased with rattling windows and unknown risks of nuclear fallout; Jane Perlez offers up a nice dispatch from the border for the New York Times. On the other hand, firms from the Northeast have figured out how to make money in North Korea and may not like to see Beijing playing around with the border.

Let’s end on a note of uncharacteristic sympathy. If the US has difficulty in figuring out what to do about North Korea, why should we think the task is any easier in Beijing? Their options are no better than ours. But when foreign policies are stuck, there is a tendency to revert to form; for the US, that is likely to be a return to strategic patience. We cannot rule out that Beijing will quietly ratchet up pressure on the North, and we should make the case that they should. But we cannot formulate our own policy toward North Korea based on the new Chinese leadership fundamentally altering the nature of its bilateral relationship with Pyongyang.  It’s not going to happen.