China apparently began to relax UN sanctions against North Korea after their summit on March 26.
Radio Free Asia, quoting an ethnic Korean living in Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture in Jinlin province, China, reported Wednesday that on April 2, around 400 female North Korean workers were sent to Helong, a city in the prefecture. Voice of America reported that a source in China saw an influx of hundreds of North Korean women arriving in Helong on April 2 to work at electronics manufacturing factories. The Sankei Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, said the economy of Dandong, a Chinese border city which came to a grinding halt in the wake of the UN sanctions, now seems to be recovering as North Korean traders return. A famous North Korean restaurant in Dandong reportedly resumed business after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sudden visit to Beijing for a summit.
These reports indicate that China has opened a back door to North Korea in an apparent violation of UN sanctions against the North.
China enforced the UN sanctions actively after clouds of war hung low over North Korea’s escalating nuclear and missile threats. But as preparations for summits between South and North Korea and between the North and the US gained speed, China began to thaw its ties with North Korea and show its influence over the neighbor. Beijing proposed a summit of four nations -- two Koreas, the US and China, and went back to the bad habit of helping the North beneath the surface.
This is not unexpected. China used to say one thing and do another. In August last year, China hurriedly imported a large amount of coal from North Korea just before the UN imposed sanctions on its coal exports. In October last year, Chinese ships were spotted by satellites selling oil to the North in the sea.
China submitted its sanctions implementation report to the UN Security Council on March 16. In light of its past behavior, questions remain about the report. As long as it acts disingenuously, Beijing does not deserve a role in the process of denuclearizing North Korea.
China’s intention is obvious. It intends to expand its clout over summit diplomacy currently taking place between South and North Korea and between the US and the North. The danger is that Beijing is trying to leverage the sanctions on the North by relaxing enforcement, in order to resolve its trade issues with the US. If China tries to intervene in the North Korea problem with intentions other than denuclearization, the South Korean and the US summits with the North are likely to end up as all cry and little wool.
Beijing and Pyongyang seem to be trying to keep in step after Kim’s visit to China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on April 5 when he visited Russia as President Xi Jinping’s special envoy that the North Korean issue should be dealt with stage by stage and that at different stages, relevant parties should take responsibilities and obligations accordingly. This is none other than Kim’s proposal of a “phased and simultaneous” approach to denuclearization. In the same context that both try to close ranks, Kim reportedly expressed his intention to return to six-nation talks. The meeting format is advocated by Beijing but refused by Washington, which regards it as a failed precedent.
It seems that Pyongyang seeks to bring China into the game to obfuscate the South Korean and US road maps for denuclearizing the North.
No doubt, continued tough sanctions and pressure have brought Kim to propose summits. If Beijing gives Pyongyang more breathing room by opening cracks in the sanctions regime, dialogue on the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programs is prone to repeat past mistakes.
The government in Seoul, together with the international community, must try to put a brake on Beijing’s relaxation of UN sanctions. Also, it must watch whether Beijing will leverage the North Korea issue to settle its trade issues with the US. China ought to know that as long as the back door is open to the North, a nuclear weapons-free Korean Peninsula will remain a far-off dream.