Amid Sanctions, a Sino-North Korean Rapprochement

By | November 30, 2016 | No Comments

Liu Jieyi explaining China's vote on UN Security Council Resolution 2321, on 30 November 2016. Image via Xinhua.

Liu Jieyi explaining China’s vote on UN Security Council Resolution 2321, on November 30, 2016. | Image: Xinhua

Today at the United Nations, the United States delivered clear messages to both the PRC and North Korea, seeking to squeeze North Korea financially, hammer at Kim Jong-un’s human rights violations, and urge China to hold the DPRK to account. The slow but inexorable passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2321 has managed to lock in UN implementation of a number of US Treasury sanctions on North Korea, and keeps China in a collaborative role. While a new American Ambassador to the UN has been selected (pending confirmation hearings), the proclivity of a Trump administration to keep pushing for a similarly tough pattern of policies toward the North Korean issue and to manage the relationship with Beijing is, to a degree, up in the air.

Given the cloudy outlook, it behooves us to better understand the status of relations between China and North Korea. Irrespective of what goes on in Washington, is the Chinese-North Korean relationship changing? Do the potential changes in the US-South Korean relationship portend another mutation of relations between Beijing and Pyongyang? And what is the actual condition of the Chinese-North Korean relations in the shared border region, the effective “ground zero” for the ultimate success of UN sanctions enforcement? For a ground-up perspective on these questions, Adam Cathcart reads across and between the lines of the Chinese press. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Amid Sanctions, a Sino-North Korean Rapprochement

by Adam Cathcart

If relations are in a downward spiral between Kim Jong-un’s regime and that of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, it would certainly make for an exciting narrative. Indeed, today at the United Nations Security Council, China seemed to lean in that direction by voting for enhanced sanctions on North Korea. In particular, North Korean coal exports to China were crimped, cutting off, in the words of the UK Ambassador, “nearly one quarter of North Korea’s foreign income.” China insisted that there would be no adverse humanitarian consequences inside of North Korea due to this action, naturally, but one cannot help but feel that the leaders in Pyongyang will not be pleased.

Reading Chinese statements, on the other hand, does not yield the impression that Xi Jinping has turned some corner on the North Korea issue. Whether one reads or listens to these statements at the United Nations, in the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, or in the foreign affairs tabloids of Beijing, the rhetoric feels rather stable. The crackdown on Dandong Hongxiang, Inc. in mid-September, appears to have been a one-off action, and Chinese diplomats as well as scholars continue to thread their country’s displeasure with the coming THAAD deployment into nearly everything.

Geng Shuang, spokesperson for the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, navigates on 30 November 2016.

Geng Shuang, spokesperson for the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, navigates on November 30, 2016. | Image: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC

Still, the Chinese press will still complain occasionally about North Korea. In a remarkable statement, the Huanqiu Shibao editorial on the sanctions today said that foreign countries should not expect absolute PRC control over trade along the border, since in the past couple of years there had been demonstrated a proclivity of North Korean soldiers to cross the Tumen River armed to the teeth looking for food. It thus appears obvious that in spite of Liu Yunshan’s promises to Kim Jong-un in October 2015 to tone down the criticism in state-controlled internet and media, there will remain a degree of criticism of North Korea in Chinese media.

All of this — the new sanctions resolution, the shifting possibilities or turmoil in Washington and Seoul, and the official statements from Beijing —  leaves us with a need to get a more ground-up view of Chinese-North Korean dynamics. Activities in the border region are at least as important to China’s next steps with respect to North Korea than any action that may ultimately be taken in Washington.

Ultimately it seems clear that in spite of the new UN sanctions, the Chinese Communist Party has been making a concerted effort to mend fences with Pyongyang, an effort that North Korea appears in some measure to be reciprocating. It might be an overstretch to say that the alliance will be firmly consolidated by the time Donald Trump is sworn in amid swoons and boos in Washington, DC, in January 2017, but certainly the trendlines are towards rapprochement. The sanctions will not impact China’s impetus to expand cross-border trade, China’s humanitarian assistance to the DPRK, and China’s drive to modernize the infrastructure along the shared frontier.

A view of Sinuiju (left) and sprawling Dandong (right) from an Air Koryo flight from Pyongyang in spring 2016. Photo by Adam Cathcart.

A view of Sinuiju (left) and sprawling Dandong (right) from an Air Koryo flight from Pyongyang in spring 2016. | Image: Adam Cathcart

Economics in the Border Region | In Ambassador Liu Jiyi’s sanctions-supporting statement for the PRC at the United Nations today, he was careful to note that UN Security Council Resolution 2321 should in no way be equated with an “intention to create a negative effect on normal trade activities” [无意对正常经贸活动产生负面影响.]

Certainly, normal trade activities in the border region with North Korea are needed. Economic statistics released by the Chinese government show that the major border province of Liaoning is not doing well. From January to September, provincial GDP contracted by 2.2 percent against a nationwide backdrop of 6.7 percent growth.1)Jilin did much the better of the two border provinces, recording above average growth at 6.9 percent. On November 7, the State Council approved the PRC’s 13th Five-Year Plan for the development of the three provinces of the northeast (Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang), highlighting in it the need for greater private economic dynamism in the region if it is to be revived. Tourism, labor imports, and trade with North Korea all fit neatly into that category. (Readers seeking more detail about Chinese trade statistics with North Korea and the provincial dynamic are urged to read Kevin Gray’s work, including this new piece by the University of Sussex scholar.)

A survey of material published on Chinese-language websites from the border region with North Korea since this past September reveals several details. First, it is clear that the Chinese Communist Party had no intention of slowing down overall economic ties with DPRK even in the weeks immediately following the fifth nuclear test. Moreover, it remains obvious that China is playing the long game. A comprehensive article from the Jilin Ribao (Jilin City Daily) indicates a few specifics worthy of attention.

A seafood processing plant in Hunchun prepares North Korean and Russian products for export abroad. Image via Jilin Ribao, 20 September 2016.

A seafood processing plant in Hunchun prepares North Korean and Russian products for export abroad. Image: Jilin Ribao

Less than two weeks after North Korea’s nuclear test, the piece sang the praises of China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy in Northeast China, focusing on trade in the city of Hunchun. For the two year period from 20167-2018, the central government in Beijing slated 2 billion RMB (approximately $290 million) for infrastructural improvements in eastern Jilin as part of the ongoing “Greater Tumen Initiative” which is meant to spark more trade with North Korea, and Russia. Trade at the Quanhe border post (on the way to Rason) is humming, and North Korea has upgraded its customs facilities on the other side of a reworked bridge.

In particular, the Jilin Ribao reported, the seafood industry in Hunchun is boasting big gains by “processing the natural abundance of Russian and North Korean seafood” before shipping it on to markets in Japan, South Korea, the US and the European Union. (Supposedly “90%” of the pre-processed seafood comes from Russia, but that figure seems rather slippery.) At any rate, the One Belt, One Road implementation may be running primarily through Russia, but it bears repeating that China is vested in a macro-strategy which pre-dates the North Korean nuclear explosions and which it hopes will ultimately render the nuclear issue irrelevant.

China’s Ambassador in North Korea |  The PRC’s National Day (October 1) celebrations were muted in North Korea, but they did provide an opportunity for Li Jinjun, China’s man in Pyongyang, to make a few remarks. Reading the rhetoric for such occasions is often not necessarily terribly useful. North Korean speakers are not there to announce a change in bilateral policy, and nor is it their purpose to reveal much of anything by paying lip service to “the Chinese dream” and stating that “under the spirit of the Seventh Party Congress, the country is engaged in economic development via a ‘200-day struggle campaign,'” as Li’s local counterpart did at this event.

However, such events sometimes result in small statements from the Chinese side, and these do give a better sense of the texture of bilateral relations, whatever direction they may be trending, in ways that are more interesting than occurs under the dry klieg lights of PRC Foreign Ministry press conferences in Beijing.

In Pyongyang on October 1, Li Jinjun’s comments included mention of Chinese aid to North Korea in light of the ongoing humanitarian struggle in the DPRK’s northeastern border region with China:


This translates as:

Ambassador Li also expressed consolation for the floods in the northern areas of the DPRK, emphasizing that Chinese saw the floods in the DPRK and sympathetically felt as if it could have happened to them [感同身受]. Out of Sino-North Korean friendship and humanitarianism, China has provided assistance to the DPRK as far as its capabilities extend [力所能及], and wishes that the soldiers and civilians of the DPRK will conquer natural disasters as early as possible and help people in the disaster-hit areas to rebuild their homes in order lead happy and healthy lives.

In combination with my more detailed analysis of China’s flood response, close reading shows the PRC hedging slightly whilst also being overt about the fact that aid has been provided. The idioms used by the Ambassador are particularly piquant; the first almost encapsulates a kind of criticism. Li could certainly be implying: We inhabit the same Tumen River valley, but because of our superior preparation, we did not suffer the same level of destruction as you did.

In following North Korea’s evening news reports since the disaster, I have found it interesting that the DPRK’s messaging to its own people about its flood response is entirely about work performed after the fact. There is no discussion of having prepared well for the floods, there is only meant to be joyous thanks to the Party for replacing homes that were destroyed by the waters. As any aid worker will point out, there is much more than mortar and bricks that need to be replaced.

Coordinating Propaganda | The new UN Security Council Resolution absorbed a number of very specific American demands. Many of these are listed in Annex II of the document, labelling specific North Korean firms for asset freezes. These include the DCB Finance Limited, which had been sanctioned in 2013 and whose Dalian office had been called out at that time, but no other firms with apparent exposure in China. In other words, there is no new Hongxiang bombshell lurking in the footnotes of the resolution.

One organization that the US Treasury has called out for censure has not and will likely never be agreed to with China, and that is the DPRK’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. In an Executive Order of March 2016, the Americans labelled that department (and, I believe, its head, Kim Ki-nam) as agents of state censorship and thus human rights abuses. Joshua Stanton called this designation “surprising,” and it is safe to assume that Beijing was surprised as well.

Liu Yunshan, left, with Choe Ryong-hae on October 9, 2015, in Pyongyang. Image via PRC Embassy in Pyongyang.

Liu Yunshan, left, with Choe Ryong-hae on October 9, 2015, in Pyongyang. Image via PRC Embassy in Pyongyang.

China’s relationship with North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department appears to be relatively robust. Kim Ki-nam was the last Politburo-ranking official to meet with China’s Ambassador, doing so just before the eruption of the Moranbong Band incident of December 2015. Liu Yunshan, China’s propaganda head on the CCP Politburo, urged more coordination when he was in Pyongyang in October 2015. Some of that has manifested itself in funny ways, like China’s recent internet ban on the popular “Fatty Kim the Third” [Jin san pang] meme, but there have been other more meaningful manifestations, like generally positive stories in prominent Chinese media outlets that depict North Korea as a place undergoing meaningful economic reforms and welcoming of a wired and rising social class. And Ri Chun-il (리준일), a North Korean graduate of Kim Il-sung University with a focus on foreign trade, has been one of the individuals tasked with improving North Korea’s image with the Chinese people.

The propaganda moves may appear to be small steps forward for a bilateral relationship that is experiencing endemic downward or backwards pressures. The point here is not to argue that China’s economic needs in the border region, its humanitarian aid to North Korea, and its propaganda coordination with the Korean Workers’ Party in and of themselves make for a distinct warming trend, particularly in the face of negative trends. But when analyzing the overall status of the Chinese-North Korean relationship, we ignore these elements to the detriment of understanding why it is China still hangs on to North Korea in the final analysis.

The DPRK will survive this round of sanctions in part because the Chinese Communist Party not only does not wish to see North Korea fall, they are interested in buoying up North Korean economic activity, and maintaining and expanding profitable areas of interaction with Kim Jong-un and his surrogates. The coal business is going to take some time to shake out, and in the meantime the DPRK is going to export another 53.5 million dollars worth of the stuff in the next 31 days. Journalists and academics can wend their way to Shenyang, Fushun, or Changchun to talk to locals and businesspeople about the coal trade with North Korea — if they can get those same interlocutors to stop talking about the faltering regional economy and the uneven effects of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. But that is a different story altogether.


1 Jilin did much the better of the two border provinces, recording above average growth at 6.9 percent.

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