China loosens N. Korea sanctions
Beijing quietly eases embargo U.S. is counting on
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.
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.