China loosens N. Korea sanc­tions

Beijing qui­etly eases em­bargo U.S. is count­ing on

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Nation & World - By Don Lee Los An­ge­les Times [email protected]­times.com

DANDONG, China — It was driz­zling rain, and gloomy clouds dark­ened the sur­face of the Yalu River sep­a­rat­ing this Chi­nese city from its North Korean neigh­bor.

In a nearby com­mer­cial district named af­ter an old Korean king­dom, men dis­tin­guish­able only by their high cropped hair­cuts and the pins in their lapels de­pict­ing Kim Jong Un’s fa­ther and grand­fa­ther were act­ing out a tiny drama with broader im­pli­ca­tions for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s for­eign pol­icy and the fu­ture se­cu­rity of the United States.

The men and a hand­ful of women slipped in and out of store­fronts to buy cos­met­ics and other per­sonal items to take home. More im­por­tant, they paid vis­its to the of­fices of trad­ing firms that ac­count for part of the flow of goods be­tween China and North Korea.

The pres­ence of these vis­i­tors was a sign that China’s role in the in­ter­na­tional em­bargo on trade with Py­ongyang — an em­bargo the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is count­ing on to force North Korea to stop build­ing nu­clear weapons — seems to be break­ing down.

Af­ter his sum­mit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June, Trump de­clared on Twit­ter: “There is no longer a Nu­clear Threat from North Korea.”

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials were quick to say the ac­tual

elim­i­na­tion of that threat would be the sub­ject of talks now un­der­way.

And, they said, the trade em­bargo that China has played a piv­otal role in en­forc­ing would ease only af­ter North Korea had taken sig­nif­i­cant steps to stop de­vel­op­ing nu­clear weapons and long-range mis­siles.

The vis­its by North Korean trade of­fi­cials in Dandong, along with a boom­let in Chi­nese tourists to Py­ongyang and else­where in North Korea, are far from the only signs that Beijing is not wait­ing.

In­stead, it has qui­etly be­gun loos­en­ing the screws on its long­time ally.

U.S. satel­lite images and Ja­panese naval pho­tos have cap­tured sus­pected il­licit ship-to-ship trans­fers of oil. And ex­perts say North Korean

work­ers are re­turn­ing to jobs inside China, some un­der the guise of ed­u­ca­tional ex­changes. Thou­sands of North Korean la­bor­ers also have en­tered Rus­sia since the U.N. ban against new work per­mits last Septem­ber, The Wall Street Journal has re­ported.

Those work­ers send home cash that, com­bined with large slush funds likely from prior years of coal sales and clan­des­tine trad­ing net­works built up across China and south­east Asia, al­low Py­ongyang to pur­sue its nu­clear am­bi­tions while keep­ing its po­lit­i­cal elite happy with fine liquor, de­signer watches and the lat­est elec­tron­ics nor­mally un­ob­tain­able at home.

Some of these trans­ac­tions are vi­o­la­tions of U.N. res­o­lu­tions aimed at

chok­ing Py­ongyang’s nu­clear pro­grams.

Other ac­tiv­i­ties fall into grayer ar­eas.

For ex­am­ple, there were re­ports that Beijing re­cently de­cided to spend $88 mil­lion for road con­struc­tion around a new but as-yetunused bridge link­ing the trad­ing cen­ter of Dandong with North Korea’s Ry­ong­chon County.

Clear-cut or am­bigu­ous, how­ever, all these ac­tiv­i­ties pre­sent a vex­ing prob­lem for the United States as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion looks to Kim to fol­low through on his sum­mit pledge to de­nu­cle­arize.

Tight­en­ing of in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions, boosted by tougher en­force­ment by China, was thought to have played a ma­jor role in bring­ing Kim to the bar­gain­ing ta­ble with Trump.

Trump hailed the his­toric June 12 sum­mit in Sin­ga­pore as a suc­cess.

Since then, U.S. talks with North Korea and progress to­ward the “com­plete de­nu­cle­ariza­tion” that Kim com­mit­ted to have been slow.

Even as Kim seem­ingly made good on his pledge to re­turn the re­mains of U.S. soldiers killed dur­ing the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, ev­i­dence has grown that North Korea is pro­ceed­ing with its nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams. Re­cent in­di­ca­tions in­clude con­struc­tion ac­tiv­ity at a mis­sile fa­cil­ity in Sanum-dong in the Py­ongyang area and a nu­clear-en­rich­ment site at Yong­byon.

At the same time, North Korea has stuck by its word to stop con­duct­ing nu­clear and mis­sile tests.

Trump has made much of the ces­sa­tion of tests, but in the eyes of an­a­lysts, Beijing be­lieves it now has a kind of green light to re­build its re­la­tions with Py­ongyang, eas­ing en­force­ment of sanc­tions and re­sum­ing busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties that help Kim hold onto power.

Wash­ing­ton’s es­ca­lat­ing trade war with China has opened up op­tions for North Korea.

In the ab­sence of U.S.China co­or­di­na­tion, Kim has “two sep­a­rate lines of ne­go­ti­a­tions, one with Beijing and one with Wash­ing­ton, (which) makes the de­nu­cle­ariza­tion much more dif­fi­cult,” said John Park, a North Korea spe­cial­ist at Har­vard’s Kennedy School of Govern­ment.

“The bar is very low,” he said. “In prac­tice, what we’re see­ing is that North Korea just has to abide by a mora­to­rium on nu­clear and bal­lis­tic mis­sile test­ing, and you would es­sen­tially see the abil­ity to move for­ward on an eas­ing of im­ple­men­ta­tion of sanc­tions from China.”

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo has ac­cused North Korea of vi­o­lat­ing var­i­ous sanc­tions im­posed by the U.N., and last month sought to have the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil ban oil trans­fers to North Korea. The ef­fort was blocked by China and Rus­sia.

On Satur­day, in Sin­ga­pore, Pom­peo at­tempted to keep up the pres­sure, warn­ing Rus­sia, China and other coun­tries against any vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions.

China’s for­eign min­istry has in­sisted that Beijing is act­ing re­spon­si­bly and Chi­nese an­a­lysts say Beijing re­mains legally bound to the U.N. re­stric­tions.

“The im­prove­ment in trade is lim­ited,” said Yi Baozhong, a North­east Asia ex­pert at Jilin Uni­ver­sity in Liaon­ing province.

The North’s ex­ports to China, once dom­i­nated by coal, skid­ded in the sec­ond half of last year to prac­ti­cally noth­ing, and China’s of­fi­cial cus­toms data show there’s been no rebound through June. But Chi­nese ex­ports into North Korea have risen steadily in re­cent months, dou­bling from early in the year to about $200 mil­lion in June.

“We’re run­ning up against a clock on how long we can main­tain as much pres­sure as pos­si­ble,” said Troy Stan­garone, se­nior di­rec­tor at the Korea Eco­nomic In­sti­tute, a non­profit think tank.

HE­LENE FRANCHINEAU/AP 2017

Most of the China-North Korea trade has been seen mov­ing through Dandong, across the Friend­ship Bridge. “The im­prove­ment in trade is lim­ited,” said a North­east Asia ex­pert.

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