China and UN Security Council Resolution 2094: Is the Third Time the Charm?

By | March 11, 2013 | No Comments

China joined the rest of the UN Security Council in approving Resolution 2094 sanctioning North Korea for its recent nuclear test. Photo courtesy of UPI.

China joined the rest of the UN Security Council in approving Resolution 2094 sanctioning North Korea for its recent nuclear test. Photo courtesy of UPI.

In an exquisitely rigorous examination of the United Nations sanctions on North Korea, Dr. Benjamin Habib notes the wide goals and limited enforcement mechanisms of the new resolution. Will China ratchet up its enforcement of sanctions on North Korea, or will it approach sanctions, as Luo Yuan wrote with calculated naiveté yesterday in the Huanqiu Shibao, as a mild brotherly admonition? Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, an analyst at the London School of Economics, arrives with a trenchant overview. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

China and UN Security Council Resolution 2094: Is the Third Time the Charm?

by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga

With the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2094, international expectations have again risen for China’s cooperation on pressuring the intransigent North Korea regime. The sanctions arrive in response to North Korea’s third nuclear test on February 12th, which the DPRK government claimed was a miniaturized nuclear device. Coupled with the North’s largely successful December 2012 so-called “satellite launch,” suspected of covertly testing ballistic missile technology, these two events suggest progress, even if there is a long road to full actualization, on developing the capabilities necessary to attack the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile. This growing threat to U.S. security, emphasized by North Korea’s explicit threat to conduct a “preemptive nuclear strike” on the United States, further motivated the United States to push through a new round of sanctions against the Kim Jong-un regime.

According to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, these sanctions are the “toughest yet” on North Korea. And indeed, the sanctions include a provision requiring states to inspect any North Korean cargo suspected of transporting items prohibited by all four rounds of sanctions against the North. They also further inhibit North Korea’s access to cash, blacklist several North Korean diplomats and officials with connections to the North’s nuclear and missile programs or money laundering activities, as well as explicitly ban several luxury items.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and her Chinese counterpart, Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations Li Baodong. Photo courtesy of Radio Free Europe

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and her Chinese counterpart, Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations Li Baodong. Photo courtesy of Radio Free Europe

A Nod to US-China Cooperation | Compared with past sanctions, this round took the longest to draft (21 days from the day of the test in 2013, compared with ten days in 2009 and the same day in 2006), but patience and horse-trading during the drafting process appears to have paid off, since the draft resolution was adopted the quickest (one day in 2013 compared with two days in 2009 and five days in 2006). Moreover, the United States went to great lengths to emphasize its cooperation with China on drafting the sanctions, even introducing the draft resolution as “U.S.-China agreed,” which is in stark contrast with China’s multiple revisions to the initial draft of the sanctions resolution as proposed by the United States in 2006. Given the questions that surround Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s willingness – and that of his reshuffled foreign policy team – to compromise with the Americans on any front, U.S.-China explicit cooperation on the North Korean sanctions front needs to be noted and commended as a welcome change from even late last year.  There also seems to be some implicit agreement between the U.S. China, Russia and South Korea.  Allowing sanctions to be passed while South Korea chaired the Security Council was much more likely to draw a ballistic North Korean reaction.  The sanctions were only approved after Russia took over the rotating chair.

The North Korean regime’s third nuclear tests followed the established pattern of increasingly bombastic rhetoric, a missile test and culminating in a nuclear test followed by sanctions, repeating events in 2006 and 2009. The most important development from this nuclear test is growing suspicion that North Korea tested a uranium-based bomb, which would indicate the North has another avenue towards proliferation that is easier to conceal and easier to mobilize and most importantly that the North has access to more uranium unlike its fixed supply of plutonium meaning they can make more weapons.

A stylized schematic of North Korea’s nuclear test. Photo courtesy of Hua Shang News.

A stylized schematic of North Korea’s nuclear test. Photo courtesy of Hua Shang News.

Frustration with Chinese Characteristics | China’s support of the new sanctions has been accompanied by the fiercest Chinese commentary yet against North Korea. Most notably, Fudan University Professor Shen Dingli wrote in Foreign Policy that “China has reached a point where it needs to cut its losses and cut North Korea loose,” and Deng Yuwen of the Central Party School wrote in Financial Times that “China should consider abandoning North Korea [and] take the initiative to facilitate North Korea’s unification with South Korea.”

Surveying the landscape of commentary within China, Peking University Professor Jia Qingguo noted “the debate in China has changed from one about whether China should work with other countries to impose sanctions against North Korea to one about the kind of sanctions China should endorse.” The Global Times repeated its January 25th call for China to reduce aid to North Korea, saying, “since Pyongyang’s nuclear test has damaged China’s interests, it’s necessary for China to give Pyongyang a certain ‘punishment.’”

Nevertheless, the Global Times still carried undertones of China’s fear of U.S. subversion of the China-DPRK relationship and the DPRK’s untrustworthiness, as it claimed that the U.S., South Korea and Japan’s underlying motive by pressuring China is to turn Beijing into “North Korea’s top enemy” and recommended a proportional response that does not ultimately undermine the relationship or China’s strategy and interests in the region.

While Western observers are obviously drawn to the bold assertions by Shen and Deng, the reality is that the Global Times likely reflects the thinking of China’s decision-makers better than outspoken critics of North Korea. While the wording coming from Beijing is strong, Beijing again did not use “brazen” (悍然 hanran) to describe the test, so Beijing has now established that its statement in response to the 2006 test, written personally by Chinese President Hu Jintao, was a special case. The lack of such language this time around unfortunately superficially indicates that Beijing is less upset, although this is likely untrue.

China’s Untranslated Toughness on North Korea | Seeing how Shen Dingli’s anti-North Korean cris du coeur in Foreign Policy was received on the Chinese mainland is another fascinating case in point. Although Shen’s works appear regularly in the pages of the official press, not a single newspaper or journal so much as reported on his Foreign Policy argument. In fact, Shen’s article has only been translated into Chinese by one sole blogger and does not appear to have spread widely on Chinese-language internet. Even on this marginal platform, the translation isn’t very faithful, since the blogger translated Shen’s takeaway line of “China […] needs to cut its losses and cut North Korea loose” to “China now needs to reduce its losses and get tougher (眼力yanli) on North Korea.” In contrast to his English language article in Foreign Policy, Shen was quoted in Chinese by People’s Daily online on the same day as saying that “in the end, the United States will definitely accept a nuclear North Korea,” and thus South Korea and Japan as U.S. allies will as well, an assertion not found or even implicitly suggested in his Foreign Policy article. This rhetorical gap reflects SinoNK’s earlier coverage of the limits of the debate within China as captured by the Global Times’ censorship of Peking University Professor Zhu Feng’s critical article of China’s North Korea policy before the test.

This active debate within China appears the most animated since 2009 but is unlikely to lead to a similar wholesale reappraisal of Chinese policy towards its neighbor. China’s fundamental interests haven’t changed and the impact of the test on China’s external environment has not differed dramatically from that of the 2006 and 2009 tests, so the only reason China would change its response would likely be for political reasons. One such reason would be to create an ideal opening for Xi Jinping to improve U.S.-China relations as he takes the title of President of China after the Second National People’s Congress (Lianghui) in Beijing this week, as SinoNK has written before.

However, this lack of fundamental movement does not preclude Beijing adopting a tougher stance on North Korea’s illegal activities, as suggested by its support for Resolution 2094. Beijing’s track record with implementing UN sanctions is mediocre at best, and Wikileaks painted a bleak picture of China as willfully ignorant and actually more facilitator than enforcer, especially in light of China’s failure to act of actionable intelligence provided by the United States on North Korea shipments to Iran through the Beijing airport.

BJS lobby

The lobby of the Beijing airport, one of North Korea’s favorite transit spots for illegal activities. Photo courtesy of

Lips, Teeth, and Italian Yachts | Among the many possible indicators of a changing stance in Beijing, one easy item to watch is if China finally creates a luxury items list for its customs enforcement. Resolution 1718 banned countries from exporting luxury goods to North Korea but left it up to individual countries to determine what are considered luxury goods, and so far China has yet to release a list of banned luxury items. While Resolution 2094 does explicitly ban some goods as luxury items—notably yachts, racing cars, and jewelry with pearls and precious metals—it still does not present a comprehensive list for countries, again leaving most of the responsibility up to individual countries.

China’s lack of a luxury goods list led the Congressional Research Service to conclude, using standard definitions from other countries including cigarettes and expensive alcohol, “clearly, China has not been enforcing the sanctions on luxury goods,” as China exported over $50 million of banned goods in one month alone, December 2008. Other possible signals that China is enforcing sanction may be the seizure of a North Korean vessel, China simply announcing surveillance of a North Korean vessel, arresting people for smuggling goods to Iran or even making North Korean aircraft fly around Chinese airspace.

While there is an important nuance to understand who is doing the exporting – the monolithic Chinese government, specific Chinese government agencies more favorable to Pyongyang, state-owned enterprises or most likely private companies – at this point, whoever is exporting these goods to North Korea needs to stop, and that falls on Beijing to enforce.

The transport-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle that was used to debut North Korea’s newest ICBM in April 2012 is a useful example of Beijing’s lack of export controls, either for lack of capacity or lack of willpower. The TEL, which appeared at the a military parade in Pyongyang following the failed April 2012 missile test, was produced by a subsidiary of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, who maintains close ties to the PLA to such an extent that previously the only customer for the vehicle was the PLA itself.

While it’s debatable if North Korea deceived the Chinese exporter and export control officials, the underlying truth is that China should have prohibited the export if for nothing else out of caution. For Chinese sanctions enforcement, the crux of the matter is that Chinese customs officials in Dandong and near Yanji – and probably Dalian, a key node in shipping intercourse – won’t get tougher on enforcement, meaning that the Chinese definition of “suspected transport” will be rendered irrelevant.  Recent history says it’s too soon to get excited.

The sanctions are intended to further inhibit North Korea’s ability to count Renminbi, or any other currency, for its nuclear and missile programs. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.

The sanctions are intended to further inhibit North Korea’s ability to count Renminbi, or any other currency, for its nuclear and missile programs. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.

The Other Shoe: More Sanctions Targets | If China fails to implement sanctions in the coming months to the satisfaction of the international community and the United States desires a true change in Beijing’s approach to sanctions, the U.S. government can motivate Beijing through unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang that would hit Chinese companies if they fail to enforce them.

While Beijing is vehemently opposed to unilateral sanctions, and has often been exempted from them by the Obama Administration, such as on Chinese investment in Iranian oil, the one instance of true hard-hitting sanctions on North Korea with Chinese cooperation was the U.S. unilateral sanctions on Banco Delta Asia in 2005. Following shortly after the 2005 Joint Statement, in what is widely considered to be a diplomatic bluster resulting from a lack of coordination between Washington bureaucracies, the sanctions scuttled a breakthrough in denuclearization negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program. Nevertheless, the unilateral sanctions immediately drove China to action. Beijing enforced the Bush administration’s unilateral sanctions, despite no legal obligation to do so, and froze North Korean assets for fear of losing access to the U.S. banking system.

A similar set of unilateral sanctions would likely temporarily strain the U.S.-China relationship, but may be a necessary step to motivating China to reconsider its approach in line with its international obligations under UN sanctions. Another sanctions action outside of the UN would be to follow actions against Iran and work with the European Union to have North Korea removed from SWIFT, the international electronic financial settlement system. Since North Korea is not as involved in the international financial system, this would not impact Pyongyang as much as Tehran, but the image of U.S. and European Union pressure would lend credibility to the seriousness of purpose the international community holds against the North’s nuclear program, especially if China publicly supported such a move. There has even been discussion of a Stuxnet-style attack on the North Korean nuclear program, which may benefit from Chinese cooperation, but this is a very unlikely scenario.

Some are considering exploiting Pyongyang’s computers to sabotage its nuclear program. Photo courtesy of

Some are considering exploiting Pyongyang’s computers to sabotage its nuclear program. Photo courtesy of

Washington’s Hopes, Beijing’s Fears | In the coming weeks, it will be important to track the narrative coming out of Washington. The U.S. government has increasingly emphasized the impact of North Korea’s provocations in terms of security costs for China, including ballistic missile defense and an increased military presence in the region, in an attempt to influence China’s strategic calculus and alter its North Korea policy, with little success so far.

The United States and other nations remain hopeful that China will begin to realize that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are the perfect legitimating cover story for U.S.-ROK-Japanese missile defense cooperation, which is conveniently also effective against China, and continued nuclear tests may lead to further proliferation in Asia. However, while Chinese experts and segments of the Chinese government undoubtedly understand this, this deleterious impact of China’s support has yet to change Beijing’s strategic calculus on North Korea.

The new sanctions may be the first evidence that this approach is paying dividends, but the true test will be China’s willingness to fully implement the new round of sanctions to the spirit of the law and not simply the letter of the law, since it has heretofore failed to successfully implement sanctions to an extent that actually impacts North Korea. China’s resistance to exerting its full pressure on North Korea is due to a semi-irrational fear of damaging Sino-North Korean relations, despite the mounting costs of the alliance to China.

The future and past look similar.  One wonders why China has not reached a boiling point since this 2006 cartoon. Image via Cox & Forkum Editorial Cartoons.

The future and past look similar. One wonders why China has not reached a boiling point since this 2006 cartoon. Image via Cox & Forkum Editorial Cartoons.

The popular refrain remains: China is facing limited options with less influence than previously thought and must prioritize stability over another Korean War and subsequent refugee crisis. But despite all of that, at the end of the day, what the outside world sees is the transformation of China’s only ally from a poor country with a small and covert nuclear program to a nearly full blown nuclear state threatening to launch a nuclear attack on other countries, a change undertaken while the DPRK survives off of Chinese food aid and investment despite international sanctions.

Perceptions matter, and if nothing else, China’s soft power is losing the narrative war to the U.S. view of China as a reluctant supporter of sanctions. Thus, it is necessary to wait for concrete evidence of Beijing’s newfound commitment to enforcing sanctions before analysts draw favorable remarks on dramatic changes in Beijing’s policy.

From China’s perspective, the paradox of Chinese leverage is that the more China pressures North Korea, the less influence China has over North Korea and the more likely Kim Jong-un is to court President Obama, if only the U.S. government returned the sentiment. The recent round of sanctions, if a true indication of the beginnings of a policy shift toward Pyongyang, will be important, but observers should resist the urge to label the present reaction as a breakthrough.

*This post has been updated to reflect a correction on the date of sanctions on Banco Delta Asia bank.

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