Diplomatic Update June 2016



Recent months have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity among the Six Parties, but as always with substantial uncertainty about whether any of it means anything. The overall context remains one in which sanctions could—if fully implemented—cause substantial distress for North Korea. As a result, I tend to be attentive to two types of news: those that signal that sanctions will be implemented (or not); and those that discuss how North Korea might play the diplomatic game if it does start to feel the squeeze. The bottom line: we still don’t know what China is actually doing, and to be honest they may not know themselves.


The US and China concluded the Strategic and Economic Dialogue earlier in the month, and thanks to a good bit of reporting by Hankyoreh, it is clear that the issue of sanctions enforcement was a non-trivial agenda item. The press release returned to standard language: “the two sides called on all relevant parties to make joint efforts and take the necessary actions to create the conditions for an early resumption of the Six-Party Talks."

But different beds, different dreams. For the US, the “joint efforts and necessary actions” center first and foremost on sanctions enforcement; for China, the “joint efforts and necessary actions” ultimately involve bilateral diplomacy between the US and the DPRK. The Hankyoreh reporting suggested that an expert-level working group on sanctions enforcement did in fact meet during the S and ED at the rank of deputy assistant secretary/minister, although there is some uncertainty whether such a working group would convene again. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that Chinese officials were willing to sit down and discuss the issue in depth; as I will point out in more detail below, however, it remains difficult to gauge the level of commitment and as long as China is not committed, why should the US move?   

China-South Korea

Since the first of the year, China has played hardball on THAAD. In February, Chinese ambassador to South Korea Qiu Guohong threatened that “If the THAAD issue poses any harm to China’s national security, efforts to improve bilateral relationships could be destroyed.” This did not sit well with either party, and recently the Ambassador was seeking to mend fences with the Minjoo party leadership, which took a surprisingly tough line on China’s unwillingness to address the North Korean issue with more resolve.  Thanks to Chinese posturing, the deployment of THAAD has now descended into one of those tussles in which credibility and signaling outweigh the strategic significance of the deployment (which in my view is overrated from the perspective of South Korea’s security and complicates the US relationship with China, although Beijing has only itself to blame on that score). But the exchange between Ambassador Qiu and interim party leader Kim Chong-in did restate the Chinese proposal—not yet seen in print—that the parties consider some way to jump-start both the Six Party Talks and peace regime negotiations.

The Russian Role

Earlier in the month, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov met with China’s Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs Wu Dawei in Beijing to discuss the North Korean nuclear program, TASS reported. But by far the most interesting development with respect to Russia was the visit to Moscow by South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se and his meetings with Sergei Lavrov (good Korea Times coverage here). The two sides had multiple and complex reasons to make nice. Russia has been firm in its opposition to North Korea’s nuclear program; for some reason recent reports of increased plutonium extraction on Yongbyon got headlines in the Russian press. But the deeper game parallels the one played between Gorbachev and Roh Tae Woo at the end of the Cold War. South Korea is a much more important economic partner for Russia as it “looks East,” and in the end has virtually no real strategic value. South Korea, by contrast, not only has an interest in assuring Russian sanctions enforcement but sees a variety of opportunities for participating in the development of the Russian Far East and realizing its own Eurasian strategy. If North Korea is thinking about playing a Russian card, they may have more difficulty going forward than they think.


You have to appreciate a politically-clever stratagem when you see it, and what could be more high-minded than getting the Secretary General of the UN involved in trying to move North-South relations forward? In fact, this proposal is laced with rat poison.  First, we all know that “improving North-South relations” does not require that Pyongyang actually do anything; it is a euphemism for getting the aid, trade and investment pipeline reopened, something for which President Park clearly has no appetite. But the real kicker in the proposal is that Ban Ki Moon has presidential aspirations, and what better temptation to increase your domestic profile than to act as a peacemaker? So far, the Secretary General has been smart enough to avoid this trap, sticking to the line that North Korea needs to abide by all extant sanctions resolutions.

China-North Korea

Little of the foregoing really matters if things don’t change in the China-North Korea relationship and as always information is scarce and the signals are mixed. To review the bidding, Liu Yunshan was treated as a conquering hero on his attendance of the 70th anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party last October, the first member of the Politburo Standing Committee to visit Pyongyang since the ascent of Kim Jong Un. If we believe that personal pique can drive diplomacy, the Moranbong band saga soured the relationship and for whatever reasons of their own, the North Koreans undertook their fourth test. This drew Chinese Six Party Talks negotiator Wu Dawei to Pyongyang, after which the Chinese were once again dissed by the satellite launch of February. A month later, the Chinese signed on to UNSC Resolution 2270. In an additional small snub, Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state and prime minister, was in Beijing several weeks ago on his way to Equatorial Guinea, but apparently met no Chinese officials in transit.  

But the legacy of fraternal communist parties provided the North Koreans an opportunity: to report the outcome of the 7th Party Congress (Joongang overview here). Heading the delegation was Ri Su-yong, whose recent career provides some insight into the fluid nature of power at the top of the North Korean political system. In 2014, Ri was put in charge of trying to counter the threat posed by the Commission of Inquiry, and was the first North Korean foreign minister to attend a UN General Assembly meeting in 15 years. He appeared to be demoted at the 7th Party Congress, because he was replaced as Foreign Minister by Ri Yong-ho. In fact, his importance actually rose as he was elected a full member and Vice Chairman of the Central Committee, a full member of the Politburo and director of the party’s International Relations Department. In addition to meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing for about 20 minutes, Ri also spent time with Song Tao, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department.

The general line in the press appears to be that this is a thaw in bilateral relations and could even be a prelude to a summit (for example, Ankit Panda at the Diplomat). But unless China has completely given up on the North Korean nuclear issue, it is hard to imagine the leadership pleased with a report on the 7th Party Congress that effectively reiterates the byungjin line.  

Nonetheless, the signals coming out of China on sanctions continue to be decidedly mixed; thus the US interest in pressing the issue at the S and ED. On the one hand, China has now issued an updated dual-use technology list that bans a handful of exports (KBS). But other indicators suggest that the intention is by no means to cut North Korea off. On June 10, Chinese organizers announced that the fifth China-DPRK economic, trade, culture and tourism exposition will be held in October in Dandong; a key issue is whether anyone will come. And on actual trade, Leo Byrne of NKNews reports a decidedly mixed picture from the most recent trade numbers in April. The biggest marker for implementation of 2270 is coal, and while values are down about 30% year-on-year, volumes are roughly constant; this means that the entire decline has resulted from price movements. While gold is down, the other banned items were small potatoes and lightly traded in any case. And most importantly, we need to remember—as the trade fair suggests—that China’s sanctions efforts are strictly delimited, and even the coal ban is subject to caveats about links to the weapons program and livelihood exceptions if the Chinese choose to invoke them. It could be that China is winding down existing contracts or has some other explanation. But the upshot: the only way to know if enforcement is taking place is to watch actual market conditions in North Korea, such as the exchange rate, and indications from policy that Pyongyang is worried; we take up that task next week. 

More From

Related Topics