We have long been skeptical of China’s willingness to lean on North Korea very hard. For some in Beijing, the benefits have not outweighed the risks; in more conservative quarters, the belief persists that a recalcitrant North Korea plays some larger strategic purpose. But signs of pique have been rising for some time; we commented recently on the difficulty China was having with its perennial Six Party Talks proposals. We now have some excellent new work analyzing other signals that are being sent, and we can do no better than steer you to it.
Over at Nautilus, Roger Cavazos, Peter Hayes and David von Hippel have taken apart the new Chinese sanctions list in a must-read post (the full 236-page Chinese document–“Technical bulletin #59 on prohibition of dual use exports to North Korea”–can be found here. Nautilus also provides the ability to translate it from the original Chinese using Google translate, which will give you a fairly accurate gist considering the language is mostly technical). The list—divided into nuclear, missile, chemical and biological and a “supplemental” section—shows incredible attention to detail, drawing on Chinese knowledge—or concerns—over very specific capabilities as well as product list templates generated by the IAEA and the export control regimes.
But the larger game is the political import of the list. Issued in the name of four state agencies–the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, China Customs Bureau, and the China Atomic Energy Authority, but omitting the Ministry of Defense—Cavazos and co. speculate that the decision must have been taken at the level of the Politburo if not the Politburo Standing Committee; this is almost certainly right. The list constitutes a political as well as technical document: a signal to North Korea of the seriousness of concern, but also to the US and South Korea that China is willing to bring export control policy into line with international norms. As the foreign ministry spokesman said at the time of the release, it sought “to fulfill the Security Council resolutions…[and] speaks to the serious attitude of China to have rule-based and regulation-based administrations (sic).”
The issue, as always, will be enforcement. The problem is not just Chinese customs capabilities but the ongoing commercial interests of both military entities and private firms in doing business with the DPRK. The Nautilus team reminded us of the flap in 2012 over the draft UN Panel of Experts report that made note of Chinese export of transporter-erector-launchers (TELs). Mark Hibbs at Arms Control Wonk laid out the basis for Chinese objections: “the Wanshan Special Vehicle Company [the exporter of the TELs], a wholly owned subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC), is a politically powerful state-owned enterprise with strong connections to the People’s Liberation Army.”
However, Cavazos and co. brought to our attention two sources on Chinese export controls that reach at least somewhat more forgiving views. Stephanie Lieggi at Strategic Studies Review and Chin-Hao Huang for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office both note the weaknesses; Huang points out for example that only four or five violations have been prosecuted. But both also note that development of an export control regime takes time. We agree: the US should be supportive rather than dismissive of the new effort.
This gesture, however, also raises the question of diplomacy: how to couple sustained pressure on the regime with an exit ramp back to the Six Party Talks. We have reported on US diplomatic activity in the region that suggests strategic patience is alive and well and the US is in no particular hurry to get back to the 6PT. We now have a read-out on the Track 1.5 meeting at Beijing from Scott Snyder, who actually attended the event, for the Atlantic and Adam Cathcart at SinoNK. Kim Kye-Gwan—North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister—came to Beijing to deliver Pyongyang’s current line: that DPRK is willing to re-enter talks “without preconditions.” This apparently reasonable line implies that North Korea is not going to do anything in advance of the talks; it thus in fact reflects Pyongyang’s own “precondition” that the five other parties accept North Korea’s derogations from all previous agreements reached under the Six Party Talks and the relevant UNSC resolutions on the issue.
But this time it was China who was not buying. Cathcart cites (and translates) a piece in Huanqiu Shibao that states bluntly that the “no preconditions” line is unacceptable. The evidene comes in the form of commentary by Central Party School scholar Zhang Lian’gui, who has provided semi-official commentary regarding North Korea and also broken significant ground (such as acknowledging that Kim Il Sung actually started the Korean War). Zhang does not go as far as the US in demanding that North Korea actually do something to signal its commitment. But he notes that the “no preconditions” line does not even contain a diplomatic commitment to the 2005 Joint Statement nor to denuclearization and that it may even seek legitimation of North Korea’s nuclear status. How is this different from saying the talks are pointless?
Finally, in perhaps the most interesting tidbit in the last week, DailyNK reports that Chinese security forces are taking further steps to fortify the border in areas where waters are shallow and cross-border traffic therefore high. Earlier reports suggested that the Chinese were laying more barbed wire fence along the border from mid-2012, but they are now apparently building 5-meter levees on the Chinese that increase visibility. The reasons hypothesized by DailyNK are not anticipatory: the article mentions both regular border-crossing for employment in China but also gunfights between Chinese and North Korean gangs involved in the drug trade. China seems to be hedging its bets on North Korea on a number of different levels.