Chinese Discourse on the New North Korea Sanctions

By | September 12, 2017 | No Comments

Since North Korea undertook its unprecedentedly large (and sixth) nuclear test on September 3, a flood of English-language speculation has followed about what the test meant. To thresh that speculation down to bare essentials, it gathered around what the nuclear blast meant to Xi Jinping personally, to the possibility of heavier sanctions on North Korea, to US-China relations, to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, to Chinese business with North Korea, and to communities near the border with North Korea — more or less in that order of descending importance, with few efforts to draw any of these threads together.

Today the main discussion seems to be yet more narrow, and focuses on the question of the Chinese government attitude toward a new raft of UN sanctions which were voted on and approved late in the working day (East Coast time) in New York on September 11. The vote came only a week after the previous round of sanctions (UNSC 2371) was due for actual implementation. Perhaps surprisingly, the PRC discourse about the vote was muted at best, some of which is described in the following threads.

In short Chinese readers and news viewers looking at the Security Council debate will have targeted more of their anger at the United States and South Korea for military drills and THAAD deployment than they will on the ostensible “pain” that North Korea is intended to feel as a result of the sanctions. In fact, PRC outlets have made clear that Russia and China will continue investing in North Korea, and that Chinese people need have no anxiety whatsoever that the sanctions will result in any inconvenience whatsoever for the everyday North Korean citizen across the border. There is a distinct break between such assumptions, China’s low-level activity in Pyongyang, and Sweden’s ambassador to the UN’s augury in his statement about the humanitarian challenges of the coming winter.

As ever, in the English writings about these developments the ratio of hot take-to-actual reporting was skewed toward the former.1)For readers looking for a more Zarathustran perspective on journalists feasting at the abundant trough of academic Twitter feeds, BR Myers has produced a new blog post which, unfortunately, stays in its appropriate lane and has nothing to do with China. Today, the work begins of understanding what the new sanctions mean, and how they will actually impact North Korean-Chinese relations.

Fortunately, a handful of reports have emerged on the subject of Sino-North Korean relations after the nuclear test that did more than rewarm old theories or merely provide professor-types a chance to sound off in glorious moments of departure from the time-consuming work of slogging mud onto the slippery administrative bulwarks of a new academic year. Particularly noteworthy reads include the Financial Times’ Yuan Yang reporting from the Sino-Korean border city of Hunchun, much excellent work by Jane Perlez, comments by Cheng Xiaohe to the Washington Post and other outlets, the FT‘s analysis of China’s uniquely contained yet contentious scholarly discourse on North Korea, and the Wall Street Journal‘s reports on Chinese radiation detections (reporting based on reading Chinese sources) and North Korean scientists in China (based on fieldwork in Jilin province, well away from the border).

One question that remains outstanding is the extent to which Xi Jinping’s personal role matters, if at all. International Crisis Group’s senior advisor for Northeast Asian affairs, Michael Kovrig, offered up one perspective (see thread appended to the tweet for more).

Xi Jinping made only vague, if any, allusions to North Korea in his BRICS summit speech soon after the test on September 3. As noted, English-language media did plenty of talking about how the test was a direct insult to the leader. (One particularly craven academic not present in Xiamen for the actual speech was quoted in the Washington Post as saying Kim’s bomb was “banging on Xi’s podium.”) What might have been more useful is some deeper discussion of the pattern that played out — not simply Xi’s speech, but the very strong attempts at domestic message control exerted by the Chinese side to not allow the North Korean test to swamp the moment of Xi’s glory.

It appears that Huanqiu Shibao and other Xinhua sites mandate a certain “Xi-is a-genius” to “North Korea-did-what?” ratio for stories on their front webpages; that ratio runs about roughly 14 to 1. While this effective repression of the North Korea crisis and muting of global criticism of the DPRK is usually interpreted as being connected to Xi’s rise and power consolidation, consider what it does to the Chinese public’s understanding of the severity of the threat from Pyongyang or the need of the average Chinese person to feel concern about the situation over the border, or even in the border region. While some analysts will note China’s explicit public discussion about the possibility of nuclear contamination not just in the border provinces, but also Shandong this time around, consider what is not being discussed.

The individuals around Xi Jinping are certainly doing their level best to depict him as the prime mover in China’s foreign policy. No less a voice than the country’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, spent a great deal of time at the end of July doing spade work as a loyal foot soldier in the expression of “Xi Jinping Foreign Policy Thought.

Finally, the question of North Korean workers in China is a particular sensitive — and important — one. Stephan Haggard’s initial reading of the UN Security Council Resolution 2375 on this point is as follows:

Last month’s UNSCR 2371 banned any new North Korean laborers abroad and 2375 took the mantle a little further by banning the contracts of North Korean laborers going forward, while not canceling current contracts. This seems to suggest that once a North Korean labor contract expires, he or she will be sent home to the DPRK. But again, no specific reporting requirements will make compliance hard to verify….

This is where the threads of Chinese media discourse and sanctions enforcement come together. To the extent that it has explained the new sanctions at all, the PRC state media has been focused on the oil issue, and not reported the plank on North Korean workers whatsoever. North Korean workers in Chinese restaurants and hotels will therefore be no wiser as to their possible jeopardy when they watch Chinese television (which they do) and in the event they were to have the freedom of surfing the Chinese internet. To my knowledge there has been precisely one story, a long illustrated blog post published last December, circulating on the Chinese internet about the “social problems” caused by North Korean workers in China. In other words, unlike issues of radiation perhaps coming over the border, there is not even the modicum of public opinion preparation being made by the CCP to send these workers home and to invite no new workers back.

Although it may be heretical to say so under the present conditions, it may be time to think of these North Korean individuals working in China as more than lines on a spreadsheet or a “slaves” utterly lacking in agency. Primarily women, they are generally middle-aged in the textile and seafood industry and 20-something in the food service and hospitality sector. (The men who are temporarily settled legally in China, in my experience, have been managers or Korean Workers’ Party members.) Justin Hastings’ new book on North Korean businesses and their integration into the global economy following the collapse of its centrally planned economy gives us a much needed sense of the economic strategy behind these enterprises, but again, more discussion is needed of their exposure to Chinese or global culture whilst in China and the possible role this could play in North Korea’s future. It does seem terribly odd that for all the money and words spent on “trying to get information in” to North Korea, we would wish to send back tens of thousands of individuals who may be lining their own minds with new ideas even as they line the pockets of the Kim Jong-un regime.

But even as the US Ambassador to the UN confidently tweets that Kim Jong-un will be deprived of $500 million from his foreign workers, those more deeply enmeshed in the sanctions business note that much ambiguity remains over the status of North Korean workers in China. Near the end of his testimony today before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Marshal Billingslea said of the labor aspect of the resolution: “That will be winding down. I’m not a big fan of wind-downs, because obviously it’s hard to enforce that, but it’s a major step forward.” For those walking down the neon evening streets in Xita, the Korean quarter of Shenyang, one wonders how those footsteps will be heard.

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1. For readers looking for a more Zarathustran perspective on journalists feasting at the abundant trough of academic Twitter feeds, BR Myers has produced a new blog post which, unfortunately, stays in its appropriate lane and has nothing to do with China.