Monday Morning Roundup



It is dangerous to read too much into Tweet-length commentary, whether American, Chinese or North Korean. But a number of breaking news items are reminders of perennial features of the  Korean equation, including weak American options, North Korean bluster, and the importance of the China factor. Beijing’s actions with respect to sanctions appear to provide an opening. Whether the Trump administration is in a position to respond is an altogether different question. And count on the North Koreans to try to make China-US cooperation on the issue difficult.

First up, President Trump had some brief remarks on North Korea in an interview he gave to Reuters on Thursday. One message was “I inherited a mess”: the president’s frustration that the problem had not been solved by the Obama administration. Welcome to the issue! After underscoring that he had had good initial contact with Xi Jinping, he repeated his claim (with which I sympathize) that “China has tremendous control over North Korea, whether they choose to say it or not…and they can solve the problem easily if they want to.” But he also noted that it was “very late in the process,” suggesting that he understood the bargaining dynamics associated with North Korea’s accumulated capabilities. Trump made mention of missile defenses as one thing that could be done, but hinted that there was “much more”—presumably something disruptive—that could be done.

A further hint at a harder line came in the State Department’s reversal of an earlier decision to grant visas to a delegation of North Koreans. The group was scheduled to attend a track two meeting organized by Donald Zagoria (National Committee on American Foreign Policy) and including a number of seasoned Korea watchers (Galucci, Cha, Revere). Choe Son Hui, director of the U.S. affairs department in North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, and with experience going back to the Six Party Talks and other track twos, was to lead the North Korean delegation. Blocking a channel to North Korea at this particular juncture seems short-sighted. What’s to lose from hearing what the North Koreans are thinking and saying? But we still don’t know the reasoning, and State officials declined to comment. Did the White House intervene? Did someone get cold feet given the political optics following the missile test and Kim Jong Nam assassination (the fact that VX was used was known at the time the initial visas were offered)? Or did it simply reflect the fact that the administration didn’t know where North Korea policy might go pending an announced policy review that could take months to complete, particularly given the lack of high-level staff in place?

In the meantime, we now have important new details on the coal ban. China has stated that the coal ban was taken in line with its commitments under UNSC 2321. I didn’t even consider this possibility in my initial analysis of the ban because it would have implied an extraordinarily rapid increase in imports, roughly three times the monthly rate of December (which was itself sanctions busting). Reuters has done us the favor of looking at the January numbers, and it turns out I was right not to consider the possibility. “Compared to December imports, China imported 28% less coal in January, which was approximately 1.45 million tons (emphasis added)” But Reuters misses the lede: this means that the coal ban has nothing to do with enforcing 2321 but should be seen as what we call an “autonomous sanction”: one that goes beyond—and in this case significantly beyond—what Beijing is obligated to do.

The message was not lost on North Korea, which issued a vitriolic response that is fully worthy of our “not satire” designation (reproduced in full below, and even sharper in the Chinese, as Adam Taylor shows at The Washington Post). The statement manages to combine whiny and defiant at the same time, complaining about Beijing’s “mean behavior” and “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” while simultaneously underlining the regime’s commitment to the byungjin line, the “self-reliant” nature of the defense industry, and the continued pursuit of its nuclear and missile programs.

The Reuters coal story has another interesting detail about how North Korea is responding to the coal ban. While exports to China fell, those to Russia, Mongolia, Australia, and Indonesia increased. The strategy: to diversify in order to at least export the full quota and perhaps exploit other weak links in order to break the sanctions altogether. For example, what is Russia doing importing energy?

Lest anyone think that the underlying dynamics have changed on the peninsula, it is important to keep our eyes on Chinese statements about a final settlement, where very little has actually changed. While claiming that it is doing nothing more than enforcing 2321, it is also clinging strongly to the long-standing line that the nuclear issue is ultimately a problem for the US and the North to resolve. In the words of Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang, "we have said many times already that the crux of the North Korean nuclear issue is the problem between the United States and North Korea."

The North Korean response is completely predictable: to provoke, thus pushing the US toward a harder line that will make cooperation with China difficult. It could be more missiles, but don’t rule out a nuclear test: the outstanding team at 38North is watching the activity at the Punggye-ri test site. To quote the president, “not good!”

Neighboring Country's Mean Behavior

Pyongyang, February 23 (KCNA) -- The DPRK made a complete success in the test-fire of surface-to-surface medium to long-range strategic ballistic missile Pukguksong-2 on February 12 under the energetic guidance of respected Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. The news instantly jolted the world and the international community is acknowledging the nuclear attack capability of the DPRK that has made rapid progress in quality.

Leading media of the world are unanimous in assessing that the acknowledged success in the test-fire of Pukguksong-2 was a demonstration of the DPRK's strategic superiority as it proved impossibility of advance detection by satellite, interception and preemptive attack.

However, a neighboring country, which often claims itself to be a "friendly neighbor", is downplaying the significance of the test-fire, branding it as a "nuclear technology just at the beginning" and threatening "the DPRK will suffer the biggest loss."

In particular, it has unhesitatingly taken inhumane steps such as totally blocking foreign trade related to the improvement of people's living standard under the plea of the UN "resolutions on sanctions" devoid of legal ground.

It has often stated that the UN "resolutions on sanctions" should not have negative impact on the people's living. Its recent measures are, in effect, tantamount to the enemies' moves to bring down the social system in the DPRK.

This country, styling itself a big power, is dancing to the tune of the U.S. while defending its mean behavior with such excuses that it was meant not to have a negative impact on the living of the people in the DPRK but to check its nuclear program.

The righteous voices of the world deride it, commenting that "a big neighboring country is imposing sanctions on the DPRK to curry favor with the U.S." But the hostile forces are shouting "bravo" over this.

The DPRK manufactured a nuclear weapon in a few years, which would take others tens of years, and completed the new latest strategic weapon system in a matter of six months with its own efforts and indigenous technology. This shows the might of its tremendous defence industry.

It is utterly childish to think that the DPRK would not manufacture nuclear weapons and inter-continental ballistic rockets if a few penny of money is cut off.

The DPRK will produce the latest weapons unprecedented in history as many as it wants as it has the self-reliant defence industry, provided by President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il with their lifelong dedication, and scientists and technicians in the field of defence industry working hard in do-or-die spirit guided by the faith that the strategic idea and intention of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea must be put into practice.

These weapons would invest the DPRK with capabilities for protecting peace and stability in Northeast Asia and the rest of the world.

The present reality makes the people of the DPRK keenly feel once again the validity of the WPK's line of simultaneously pushing forward the economic construction and the building of nuclear force.

The DPRK will invariably advance straight along the road indicated by the Party's line and deal a heavy blow to the U.S. and its vassal forces by dint of powerful nuclear deterrence and thus win the final victory. -0-

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