Plus ça change: Getting China to Enforce Sanctions on North Korea

By | July 21, 2013 | No Comments

Chinese and North Korean officials meet in May 2013 | Original image: Rodong Sinmun

Chinese and North Korean officials meet in May 2013 | Original image: Rodong Sinmun

Did the spring of 2013 see a paradigmatic shift in the Chinese government’s approach to its recalcitrant neighbor? Or was it simply a case of “more of the same but with better window dressing”? In the Spring/Summer 2013 edition of the Yonsei Journal of International Studies, Sino-NK analyst Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga joined forces with Georgetown graduate and cyber-security specialist Jenny Jun to address that very question. The result was this piece, “Getting China to Enforce Sanctions on North Korea”.

In it, Beauchamp-Mustafaga and Jun reveal in compelling terms the distinctions to be drawn between the many Chinese responses to North Korea’s third nuclear test of February 12. First there was “the fiercest Chinese academic commentary yet”… in English. Then there was the “unusually critical” domestic media response, which actually stopped well short of suggesting that the time had come to abandon North Korea. And finally there was the official stance, which the piece notes did not even attain the level of stunned opprobrium voiced at the time of North Korea’s first nuclear detonation in 2006. The mot du jour at that time, the two remind readers, was “flagrant.” For his part, President Xi Jinping later reminded all who were prepared to listen, “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain,” proving once and for all that China was not even close to casting North Korea under the nearest bus in the way the English-language commentary had perhaps tantalizingly implied.

As such, what hope is there that the Chinese authorities will embrace the spirit of UN Security Council Resolution 2094 and enforce sanctions? After all, the piece reminds us that past Chinese efforts at sanctions enforcement have spanned the inauspicious gamut from “apparent incompetence to wilful ignorance” where “evidence abounds” of Beijing’s failure to fulfil its (wholly self-imposed, as a veto-wielding permanent member of the UNSC) obligations to the UN.

Yet while the past doesn’t offer sanctions advocates much cause for optimism, the piece also points to small but noticeable green shoots of improvement. In the finance and transport sectors, for example, Chinese government departments have made noises and issued edicts calling for unconditional sanctions enforcement. Yet there is no sign of a plasma television shortage in Pyongyang, at least not yet, and as one person who does business in Pyongyang recently told this author, “There has been a lot of talk about banking sanctions, but my connections say that it hasn’t made any difference.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose… or is it?- Christopher Green, Co-editor

Getting China to Enforce Sanctions on North Korea

by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga and Jenny Jun

The luxury items list is [an] example of domestic interest groups possibly shaping China’s enforcement of sanctions. Despite the Ministry of Foreign Affairs signing China up to ban exports of luxury goods to North Korea, China has yet to establish a list of luxury goods. This failure to follow the spirit of the sanctions may be due to pressure from Chinese companies, either state-owned or private, to avoid sanctions that would affect their bottom-line. They can pressure the government by exploiting their connections to the decision-making process or by citing the potential unemployment arising from their loss of business due to sanctions enforcement, or simply through bribery. Reports of unabated China-DPRK trade in blatant luxury items in the weeks after approving UNSCR 2094, such as LCD TVs, near the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, located a half mile from the MFA’s headquarters, and being transported through Beijing airport, which falls under the enforcement of the GACC, reveals either a willful ignorance of the sanctions violations occurring at its doorstep or an inability to enforce sanctions due to bureaucratic incompetence or impotence. This again highlights the numerous challenges bureaucratic politics plays in full enforcement.

Chinese roadblocks to sanctions enforcement present many obstacles that central authorities in Beijing and foreign countries must overcome in order to see substantial changes in China’s stance on North Korea sanctions. Nevertheless, the underlying factors driving China’s North Korea policy—namely fear of collapse, strategic value in US-China relations and bureaucratic politics—ultimately remain unchanged and thus China’s fundamental strategic calculus on North Korea will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future. Xi and Obama’s possible reconciliation in their new administrations also allows China to reassess the value of North Korea in terms of US-China relations, but this process will be slow and not significantly impact China’s North Korea policy in the short-term due to the pragmatic and conservative path-dependency nature of the Chinese government, further compounded by the uncertainty of the transition period to Xi Jinping. In the end, China’s enforcement of sanctions will likely run to the middle ground that appeases the international community but remain short of full enforcement to avoid any consequences that would directly affect the stability of the Kim regime, and thus China’s interests in the region.

View all of “Getting China to Enforce Sanctions on North Korea” here.

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