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China-North Korea Relations: Pitfalls and Possibilities

Written by Timothy Rich

China is frequently viewed through a myopic lens when it comes to North Korea. It is technically committed to the country’s defence under the 1961 Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty and is a lifeline to the Hermit Kingdom that undermines efforts to sanction the regime over its continued nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests. China comprises roughly three-quarters of North Korea’s imports and exports and even after the 2016 nuclear test, China emphasised that sanctions should not harm “normal trade”. However, oversimplifying China-North Korea relations creates a convenient scapegoat for Western observers frustrated over the lack of progress on rein in Pyongyang. This overlooks long-standing tensions between the two countries and risks overestimating China’s influence over its neighbour. At the same time, Chinese influence encourages domestic reforms in North Korea and although piecemeal, these reforms suggest ways to constrain North Korean belligerence. Continue reading “China-North Korea Relations: Pitfalls and Possibilities”

The Kremlin seeks a greater role on Korean Peninsula

Written by Alex Calvo.

When discussing North Korea, many observers tend to focus on relations with South Korea, the United States, China, and Japan. But we should not forget Pyongyang’s “other neighbour”, Russia. The confirmation that Kim Jong-Un will be attending WWII victory celebrations in Moscow, his first foreign trip since 2011 and one directly connected to the regime’s foundational narrative, plus the agreement between Russian RusHydro hydroelectricity company and South Korean K-Water governmental agency, serve as powerful reminders that Moscow remains a significant actor in the Korean Peninsula.

Concerning the victory celebrations surrounding the “Great Patriotic War”, on 28 January Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, informed Interfax news agency that “the participation of the North Korean leader has been confirmed, we are preparing for his arrival”. For Russia, the Soviet role in bringing down Nazi Germany and her suffering during the war remain a fundamental pillar of the country’s self-image and soft power abroad, as well as the necessary element making it possible to avoid a wholesale rejection of the Stalinist period. In the case of North Korea, much of the regime’s public discourse is based on the real or alleged guerilla activities of founder Kim Il-sung. This is also connected to Pyongyang’s aggressive anti-Japanese rhetoric. Thus, the commemoration of the end of the Second World War offers both Moscow and Pyongyang a good opportunity to stress their historical credentials and support their state narratives. Furthermore, adding to the event’s diplomatic potential, on 9 February Russian ambassador to Seoul Alexander Timonin announced that Moscow had also invited South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

With regard to the energy cooperation agreement between Russia and South Korea, open to North Korean participation, we should say first of all that it fits squarely with Moscow’s long-standing attempt to diversify her foreign economic relations away from Europe, while avoiding excessive reliance on China. As Natasha C. Kuhrt has noted, Moscow is “attempting to diversify relations in the region away from China due to the over-dependence of Russia’s Far Eastern region on China in economic terms”. A successful policy along these lines requires greater energy exports to both South Korea and Japan, involving the construction of the necessary physical infrastructure and the laying down of the requisite political agreements. Furthermore, it also demands in the case of exports to South Korea cooperation from the North, which has the added benefit for Moscow of lessening the latter’s dependence on China. This is also in the interest of Japan, although Russo-Japanese relations are complex and difficult, and Tokyo’s need to secure American support to face a rising China means the scope for a more imaginative policy towards Moscow is more restricted than it would otherwise be. Territorial and, above all, historical tensions between Tokyo and Seoul also remain high. Despite this, Russia being a major energy exporter and Japan a correspondingly significant energy importer, and both being wary of China’s renaissance, the rationale for improved cooperation remains. A similar logic can be applied to relations between Moscow and Seoul.

The agreement between RusHydro and K-Water, signed on 30 January under the auspices of the Ministry for Development of the Russian Far East is significant in and by itself plus because it is open to North Korean participation. At this stage it seems more akin to a framework, rather than a detailed blueprint, since in the words of Alexander Galushka, Minister for Development of the Russian Far East,  “We have agreed on the creation of a working group, so that we will be able to formulate definitive proposals on direct investments in the Far East and on collaboration between RusHydro and K-water by mid-April”. Galushka also explained that “Our North Korean partners have agreed that the Russian side, including RusHydro, will negotiate with our South Korean partners on the implementation of trilateral projects”. These projects include an “energy-bridge” connecting Russia and South Korea through North Korea, and the modernization of North Korea’s power industry infrastructure. Actually three-way cooperation has already begun, with Russia exporting coal to South Korea through the North Korean port of Rajin (the most northerly all-year ice-free port in the Asian continent) for the first time last year. This followed the refurbishment of a wharf and the construction of a rail link to Russia by RasonKonTrans, a joint venture between the North Korean Ministry of Railways and Russian Railways. The project is aimed at facilitating Russian exports and relieving the congestion of the country’s Pacific ports, but it is not difficult to imagine Pyongyang welcoming a diversification of her foreign economic relations and a lessening of her dependence on Beijing. Some reports point out that should the project be successful, South Korea will acquire half the Russian stake (70 %) in RasonKonTrans. Russia already sells coal to Japan.

Despite these ongoing projects and future plans, the economic development of Russia’s Far East remains a challenge, with population still dropping. Authorities are planning to develop the Russian section of Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island (shared with China, which calls it Heixiazi) in cooperation with Beijing, and are also discussing the possibility of handing out free land to existing and new inhabitants. Although Moscow’s intention is to coordinate these policies with Beijing, Chinese netizens have already criticized the plans. Unless Moscow can succeed in strengthening the economy and demography of her Far East, her ambitious plans for cooperation with the two Koreas and Japan are unlikely to come to fruition, and instead Russia may have to face a much more aggressive China. In particular if Beijing succeeds in breaking out of the First Island Chain and thus gains additional room to confront Russia.

One of Putin’s foreign policy challenges in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region is thus to position Russia as the key unlocking the long conflict in the Korean Peninsula, by brokering pragmatic arrangements involving Pyongyang and Seoul, and ideally Tokyo. This would serve the Russian national interest but would also benefit North Korea, uncomfortably dependent on Beijing, South Korea, looking for a way out of a seemingly intractable confrontation, and Japan, one of whose worst nightmares is the consolidation of a Moscow-Beijing axis, also stand to gain. Would it also be in the national interest of the United States? As long as the Intermarium(belt of land between the Baltic and the Black Seas) remains a battleground this is unlikely to be perceived this way, but if relations between Russia and the West improved both may come to see the Korean Peninsula as fertile ground for cooperation, as some voices are already pointing out.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) and CPI Blog Regular Contributor. He focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He is also a member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). Dr Calvo is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here. Image credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons.

The Yin and the Yang: China’s Delicate Balancing of North-South Korea Relations

Written by Brian Benedictus.

When it comes to the level of trust and friendship between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea or DPRK), it is clear that the relationship has hit rocky times in recent years. By contrast, China-Republic of Korea (South Korea or ROK) ties have warmed gradually over the past decade, placing China in the increasingly difficult position of balancing its relationship with its long-time Korean partner to the north and its growing friendship with the Korea in the south.

In recent years, actions undertaken by leadership in Pyongyang has pushed China’s patience to the brink. In early 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear weapon’s test against strong push pack from China, which saw the test as threatening the region’s stability. It also showed Beijing’s inability to prevent its strategic partner from undertaking such a provocative action. Last December, ties became further strained when China’s closest link in North Korea, former vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission, Jang Song Thaek, was accused of corruption and executed soon thereafter. The relationship once described by Mao Zedong as close “as lips and teeth” is clearly at one of its lowest points in history. Dr. Andrei Lankov, a Professor and historian at Kookmin University in Seoul, stated recently that “currently we see a gradual deterioration of Sino-DPRK relations, largely initiated by the North Korean side.” He also stated that “for China, North Korea is a trouble-maker whose adventurism occasionally puts China’s long-term interests at risk and whose disregard for the Chinese warnings is remarkable.” It is worth noting that there were over 40 senior level exchanges  between the two countries from 2009 to 2012, but the number during 2013 and 2014 dropped to just two.

China’s bilateral ties with South Korea have seen marked improvement in recent years. Xi Jinping’s summer meeting in Seoul with President Park Geun-hye marked the first time a Chinese leader visited South Korea prior to first visiting North Korea. The focal point of the relationship is the intensity of growing economic ties between the two countries, which has seen trade move from merely $6.37 billion in 1992 to over $200 billion in 2011. While South Korea’s trade volume with China is larger than its combined trade with Japan and the United States, a free trade agreement is expected to be ratified by the two countries later this month, which will only further cement ties between Beijing and Seoul. There are, however, some hard truths that all three countries realize when defining their respective bilateral relationships.

Simply put, Chinese trade and aid with North Korea will be maintained at least under current levels for the foreseeable future. For China, maintaining regional stability is paramount in the region. Any sudden government collapse in the DPRK could result in a heavy influx of North Korean refugees across border into China’s Jilin and Liaoning Provinces, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that Beijing would be stretched to manage. And while speculation has run rampant on the possibility of the two countries decreasing economic ties, the reality is that trade between them has been steadily increasing in recent years. In 2013 trade between China and North Korea grew by more than ten percent from 2012 levels to $6.5 billion. And while Chinese grain exports to the DPRK have decreased in recent years, this is due to a relatively stable North Korean economy and higher yielding domestic harvests, not geopolitical wrangling between the two states. Some observers also pointed to the apparent absence of Chinese shipments of crude oil to North Korea for the first seven months of this year, yet there were no reports of serious fuel shortages in the country. However, Yonhap news agency in South Korea reported that “…diplomatic sources with knowledge of the matter cautioned against reading too much into the official trade figures because China has been providing crude oil to North Korea in the form of grant aid and such shipments have not been recorded on paper.”

While the North Korean leadership has lashed out with a multitude of diatribes aimed at Beijing over the past year, the DPRK understands that China is its most reliable (and indispensable) friend. North Korea currently relies on China for nearly 90% of its energy imports and 60% of its total trade. Although it has looked recently to Russia, Japan, and even the European Union for economic alternatives, none of them would be willing to give Pyongyang an economic arrangement in the form that it currently enjoys with China. Since 1995, Beijing has allowed Pyongyang to run average annual deficits of nearly $358 million, which essentially China writes off as aid to the country. Pyongyang is also able to distribute Chinese food aid directly to its military, as such aid does not require distributional oversight as much of North Korea’s previous arrangements with international organizations have had,  thus reinforcing its Songun (military first) policy to maintain support of its vast military. North Korea’s primary export to China come from its vast and largely untapped mineral reserves. The reserves, which include anthracite and iron ore, provides North Korea’s leadership with a vital source of income, as most other countries currently do not trade on a large scale with the DPRK due to embargo restrictions.

Finally, while Beijing won’t sell off its “diplomatic stock” with the DPRK, it is increasingly diversifying its political capital into South Korea. In March, Beijing and Seoul announced  during the Xi-Park meeting that “…both sides are committed to realizing the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and hope to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula.” Beijing also seems to be taking the possibility of a ROK-led Korean unification more seriously, and doesn’t want to see the United States being the only major player whispering in Seoul’s ear if that time comes. Last year, in a major shift, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (which is under the direct control of the State Council) stated in a report that Korean reunification would become the focus of cross-border relations in the future and stressed the need to quiet concerns that China would continue to support North Korea under any circumstances. The report also stated that during informal discussions with South Korean officials, Chinese officials apparently have shown a keen interest in the prospects of reunification.

There are obstacles, however, that will test the limits of exactly how far and fast PRC-ROK relations can develop. Beijing must understand that South Korea has to maintain a delicate balance between its economic interests with China and its vital security relationship with the United States. Many South Koreans are also suspicious of Chinese motives in  deepening ties with their country, and often such negative thoughts stem from China’s long-standing relationship with the DPRK. In a 2012 poll, over two-thirds (68.1%) of South Koreans held negative views towards the China-North Korea relationship. For its part, China must realize that if it wants to be seen as a responsible actor in the region, it cannot continue to support North Korea unconditionally. It does appear that Beijing is aware of the high reputational costs that its relationship with the DPRK poses. With each step that China takes in order to distance itself from its long-time ally, the likelihood that the regime in Pyongyang collapses increases. For China, this balance is vital to its regional interests, and its approaches to both North and South Korea will be in a constant state of transition and change for the foreseeable future.

Brian Benedictus is a Washington D.C.-based foreign policy analyst specializing in East Asian security issues. He is also an Asia-Pacific Desk analyst for Wikistrat. Brian owns the blog Warm Oolong Tea. Image Credit: CC by Roman Harak/Flickr.

Japan’s Security (R)evolution

Written by Sebastian Maslow.

Since his comeback as prime minister in December 2012, Abe Shinzo has vigorously pushed for a redesign of Japan’s security system. As such he has proposed to ‘take Japan back’ from its constraining post-war regime and to restore a ‘strong Japan’ capable of deploying its military forces overseas in support of security allies. The evolving security architecture comprises newly designed institutions for intelligence and security policy coordination, a review of Japan’s defence posture with upgraded military capabilities, and the lifting of the long-standing ban on Japanese arms exports and participation in joint defence technology research. These policy changes were implemented as a precondition for the Abe cabinet’s recent decision on revising the enduring interpretation of Japan’s constitution. In sum, they are the foundation for a new strategic outlook termed ‘proactive pacifism’, which aims at an enhanced role of Japan’s military in international peacekeeping and conflict resolution, and a strengthening of the US-Japan alliance. Continue reading “Japan’s Security (R)evolution”

Keeping China in Check: How North Korea Manages its Relationship with a Superpower

Written by Adam Cathcart.

Around the world today, knowing how and when to deflect the will of the Chinese Communist Party seems to be something of a common theme. Beijing’s confidence is manifest at every turn: When one of its top leaders arrives in London, China seems to expect nothing less than audiences with the Queen, massive and obligatory profits, and silence about Tibet. Chinese state propaganda continues to promote a version of history that emphasizes victimization by the West, but by and large the country’s government now gets what it wants.

Why, then, when China looks at its impoverished neighbour North Korea, does the PRC seem so stymied, and even impotent?

Economic leverage has been a key tool in Beijing’s kit. But, just as the existence of large economic ties does not ipso facto prevent war from breaking out between China and Japan, the notion of strong economic ties between China and North Korea does not necessarily lead to outright Chinese influence – or China’s ability to use that leverage. The DPRK is surely dependent on trade with China, Chinese oil, and consumer goods, and North Korean businesses operating legally in China are a major contributor to the Pyongyang regime’s balance sheet.

Pyongyang’s ability to survive on very little, and the implicit threat of its collapse, make it almost impossible for China to shut off this flow. A shutting-off of cross-border trade would not simply represent a backtracking after years of slow growth, it would be a total contradiction in Beijing’s broader policy to open up frontier areas for transportation and trade. Such a policy would also lead to a great deal of illegal cross-border activity which the PRC is already rather annoyed at having to police.

Cultural influence, or ‘soft power’ has been another element of Beijing’s global strategy. There are equivalents of the ‘Confucius Institutes’ in Pyongyang, with an estimated 700 graduates per year. But North Korea keeps its small population of overseas Chinese under careful surveillance (Kim Jong-un finally allowed them to have landline telephones, an improvement) and at Chinese New Year’s parties in Pyongyang, foreigners outnumber North Koreans. Chinese students at elite universities in Pyongyang will occasionally swap USB sticks with North Korean friends, but the content absorbed is just as likely to be Japanese pornography as tracts about marketization.

Kim Il-song was mortally opposed to Chinese language education in the DPRK, telling his successors not to trust Chinese capitalists. There is no need to conjure up a ‘last testament of Kim Jong-il’ to argue that anti-Chinese sentiment is hard-wired into the ruling arts of the North Korean leadership.

Using military power in North Korea is hardly a hypothetical for the PRC, which undertook three draining years of total conventional war against the US and United Nations in Korea (1950-1953) and spent another five years of occupation and reconstruction of the DPRK (1953-1958).  Mao’s gamble that intervening in the Korean War would not result in either a huge defeat or American nuclear attacks on Chinese soil paid off. But Chinese leaders today have very little stomach for another war to either destroy or save the DPRK; North Korea’s nuclear deterrent provides yet more reason to stay out.

North Korea’s unique historical position as a sovereign state that had been fully occupied by Chinese communist troops understandably makes the North Koreans touchy and prone to exaggerated claims of Kimist power and genius. It also makes the Chinese extremely halting when any suggestion is tendered that such a turn of events could again come to pass. Even the fatuous editors elevated as ‘public intellectuals’ in PRC state media have to recognize Beijing’s sense of ambivalence in this area.

If history helps to immobilize China’s freedom of action with North Korea, the communist giant’s relationships in the region also prevent it from making much progress. Outright hatred of Abe Shinzo means that there is next to no policy coordination between Japan and China on North Korea – very much to the benefit of Pyongyang.  And every forward step taken to heighten the symbolism of China’s relationship with Seoulmakes North Korea all the more recalcitrant and obdurate. When Xi Jinping went to the South Korean capital on 3 July, the DPRK media said he shared Park Geun-hye’s ‘dog’s dream of denuclearization’; less than three weeks later, the country’s top political and military organ, the National Defence Commission chaired by Kim Jong-un, called China ‘weak-willed…clinging to the malodorous coattails of the US.’

North Korea is no poster child for doing Beijing’s bidding. Assertions that North Korea is China’s“savage attack dog” make for exciting reading, but are completely off-base. It is North Korea’s refusal to heed China’s pressure and insistence that in so many ways makes the country noteworthy.

Adam Cathcart is a Lecturer in the Dept of East Asian Studies, University of Leeds. He is a CPI Blog Regular Contributor and tweets @Adamcathcart.

Abusive Convenience: Recent Chinese-North Korean Relations

Written by Adam Cathcart.

In the lengthening aftermath of the Jang Song-taek execution, writers who are fond of metaphors for Chinese-North Korean relations can take heart. The bilateral relationship which had been “like lips and teeth” continues its transition into a new era, one of bleeding lips, or, as the historian Shen Zhihua puts it, a “marriage of convenience” experiencing serious discord.

In order to properly review recent changes and action in the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, we need to do more than read the latest rumor; we need to investigate the broader arc of Sino-North Korean relations in the months after the Jang Song-taek purge. From the Chinese perspective, things with Pyongyang are going poorly, and Beijing’s strategic discourse on North Korea continues its pattern of gradual change. Apart from a few recent bright spots involving genuflections before a wax statue of Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang shows itself to be increasingly resistant and publicly resistant to Chinese advice. Things have gotten more than a touch acrimonious in the aftermath of Jang’s elimination. In spite of the steady (and expected) professions from Beijing that no “channel” of influence to Pyongyang has been lost with the death of Jang Song-taek, frustration is clearly mounting on both sides.

In an interview with a Chinese television station, Zhang Liangui complained that South Korean analysis of Jang’s wrist bruises was overwrought. But Zhang reserved his most steady critiques for the North Koreans, who (and also according to Zhang’s colleagues) were in the middle of changing their economic deals with China. North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun left Jang’s death warrant up on the front of their Chinese homepage for over a month (no idle mistake, that), and Chinese television news editors had since refused to purge Jang Song-taek from their stock footage of North Korea, making him into the virtual equivalent of Banquo’s ghost.

On the whole, there were few positive signs that 2014 would be anything other than a year of recalibration and uneasy distancing for Sino-North Korean relations. China’s reluctant acceptance in December of North Korea’s new Special Economic Zone scheme, launched the prior month with no consultation, was one of the half-hearted Chinese attempts to at least pretend that things were proceeding normally even as high-level communication was poor.

China’s Ambassador in Pyongyang, Liu Hongcai, reemerged in late January with a cultural embassy of Chinese musicians and dancers from Dalian city and Jilin province who had come to Pyongyang to celebrate and buck up the Overseas Chinese community – another sign of the quest for stability and normalcy. China and North Korea had thus already begun mending fences in their peculiar way after the Lunar New Year, even as Chinese journalists wrote patronizingly about North Korean female football players in China unable to understand or use e-mail and bereft of the trust of their superiors.

Today, the North Korean leadership seems more prone to express itself in acts of military testing and rhetorical belligerence, none of which bring much succor to Beijing. The Hwanggumpyeong/Huangjinping island Special Economic Zone across from the new city in Dandong is nowhere near operational or transformative; the terminus to Beijing’s new bridge to North Korea is surrounded by a wall; there is no road from it to Sinuiju. Kim Jong-un shows few signs of returning to talks, let alone abandoning his nuclear weapons programme. The DPRK’s recent flirtations with Japan are surely viewed with extreme prejudice in Zhonghanhai and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. Only at the United Nations are the old comrades still in lockstep, on human rights inquiries and unspeakable attempts of Western imperialism to blow up the girders of both of their Leninist Party-states, (i.e., the goal of the Commission of Inquiry also aims to call into question Youth Leagues, mass dancing, forcefully secularized countryside, arbitrary executions, etc.)

Geography and geopolitics will keep this relationship relatively stable, but there are ample grounds for further fracture (following distinctly recent abuse) in this marriage of convenience.

Adam Cathcart is a Lecturer in the Dept of East Asian Studies, University of Leeds. He is a CPI Blog Regular Contributor and tweets @Adamcathcart.

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