Recent UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions are unlikely to “change Kim Jong Un’s calculus” due to North Korea’s resilient economy and sanctions loopholes, a South Korean specialist on Sino-DPRK relations told NK News in a recent interview.
In fact, Park Jong-chol, Associate Professor at the Department of Social Studies Education of Gyeongsang National University said, sanctions may have a positive effect on the DPRK economy by promoting “trade reorganization” and encouraging coal prices to fall.
He also believes Beijing is yet to decide on where to draw its red line on North Korea, despite the two walking “the worst path” in 2017, and that China will likely not stop supplying crude oil in spite of Washington’s continued calls for a suspension.
In an extended interview in Seoul, Park shared his thoughts on bilateral ties, China’s role in curbing the North’s nuclear and missile development, and the possible influence of the USNC resolutions on the DPRK’s national economy and its people’s livelihoods.
Interview has been translated as well as edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: How do you assess the overall China-North Korea relationship?
Park Jong-chol: Extreme events including North Korea’s August Faction Incident in 1956 and China’s Cultural Revolution have taken place in the past. Another significant event was Seoul and Beijing establishing diplomatic relations in 1992, after that China had extremely bad relations with the North. Bilateral relations improved between 2008 and 2009 as Kim Jong Il handed power over to Kim Jong Un.
Even though North Korea conducted the second nuclear test in 2009, the Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping administrations initially supported the Kim Jong Un regime with the aim of stabilizing the Korean peninsula and protecting the status quo.
Pyongyang’s third nuclear test in 2013 embarrassed Beijing considerably, and the two countries have undergone conflict continuously for four years. Strife between China and North Korea has peaked.
As North Korea launched a missile and conducted a nuclear test whenever there is a major event in China and the U.S. in 2017, the country gave the impression that Xi Jinping couldn’t control Kim Jong Un at all. Self-deprecating jokes that it was a relief that there was no seventh nuclear test during the National Day and the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were told in Beijing.
In general, ties between China and North Korea walked the worst path in 2017, but I expect that both will overcome the state of discord and move in the direction of compromising in 2018.
“Beijing doesn’t have as much ability to control Pyongyang as we believe”
NK News: China is North Korea’s closest ally, but do you believe that Beijing really has enough leverage to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue?
Park Jong-chol: Many Chinese experts in the field of the Korean peninsula claimed that Beijing is less capable and doesn’t have as much leverage as we believe. For instance, diplomatic documents from the Soviet Union showed that the Korean People’s Army (KPA) didn’t even thank the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army after the Korean War.
Although around 240,000 or 250,000 troops were stationed in Pyongyang even after the war, the North didn’t speak directly to China. Instead, they had indirect conversations via the Soviet Union diplomats.
Beijing doesn’t have as much ability to control Pyongyang as we believe. China has not intervened in North Korea’s internal affairs since August 1956 – interference in domestic affairs is impossible.
The role of China was very significant, however, in rescuing the North Korean economy from the arduous march and pushing Kim Jong Un as the heir between 2008 and 2009. But Pyongyang undermined Beijing’s goodwill by conducting the third, fourth, fifth and sixth nuclear tests.
Therefore, I think the Chinese leadership believes that they don’t have ability despite having the determination. It’s crucial to maintain the socialist alliance pro forma instead of supporting the regime: Beijing wants to maintain the bond geopolitically, but it doesn’t seem that they support Kim Jong Un.
China has a considerable level of antagonism toward Kim, but the question is who will be his successor. There aren’t many pro-Chinese figures from the perspective of Xi Jinping: a pro-Chinese group was removed in droves on the occasion of faction incident in 1956, and later the third nuclear test, and purge of Jang Song Thaek.
NK News: If Beijing was determined to block economic exchange with Pyongyang, what effect might this have on the North Korean national economy?
Park Jong-chol: Around 90% of North Korea’s trade is dependent on China, according to the statistics. Trade between China and the North is estimated to be around USD$7 billion, and the amount of informal trade is around two or three times more than the official one. UNSC resolutions suggest that 80 and 90% of trade of North Korea – worth around USD$3 billion – can be blocked.
But the problem is that the North’s dependence on trade is around 20% overall – the country has developed its own economic system which can respond to chronic sanctions.
UNSC resolutions can cause serious damage to the North Korean economy, but I think it will be difficult to achieve the goal of making the North abandon its nuclear weapons and missiles. The North is a military state like Imperial Japan, holding up the banner of “fighting to death even though we defeat.”
“I think the means and the end are confused in this situation”
Although they can deliver a considerable hit to the North Korean economy, it is necessary to think carefully about the purpose of the sanctions. The UNSC resolutions aim to make the North Korean regime abandon nuclear weapons and missiles as well as boost the people’s economic life and promote Six-Party Talks simultaneously. I think the means and the end are confused in this situation.
The existence of informal trade means there are many ways to avoid sanctions. Vessels can turn off their GPS (global positioning system), and there are various ways to smuggle gasoline. For instance, Palestine procures supplies by digging underground tunnels to avoid the Israeli blockade. There are also smuggling routes on the U.S.-Mexico border. Economic relations between China and the North work likewise. Chinese officials even don’t know how much Beijing oil provides through a pipeline.
North Korean vessels can sail to the high seas and Chinese ships transfer oil to them. The resolution passed in December prohibits this behavior, but how can they capture small fishing boats which carry around 10 crewmen and turn off their GPS?
Another issue is the North doesn’t use gasoline much as diesel oil is widely used. How can the international community stop diesel oil being transported by drum containers or diesel cars crossing into the North at night?
NK News: Washington has called for Beijing to suspend the supply of crude oils, which the U.S. has said China provides Pyongyang via the Dandong-Sinuiju pipeline. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley also claimed that North Korea came forward to the negotiating table after China cut off oil supplies in 2003. Are there any chances that China will accept the U.S. proposal?
Park Jong-chol: China has never threatened North Korea that it will stop supplies. There is Pa San (八三) region in Dandong and Mount Paekma in Pihyon County located to the east of Sinuiju City. The regions are connected by so-called Friendship Oil Pipeline whose straight-line distance is around 30 km, and it’s a very thin pipeline of around 20cm. The North is in charge of managing 20 km of pipeline and China maintains the rest.
The petroleum can be transported by tank truck. Using the oil pipeline is an advanced strategic goal, as oils can be transported by train or vehicle due to the technology development.
The U.S. will never be able to figure out how much oil is transferred as it can’t be detected through satellite. And 500,000 tons or 3.5 million barrel are provided by China, and one or two supertankers can transport oil at a small outlay.
Around 150 people have to be mobilized to maintain the oil pipelines. This is very unnecessary from an economic standpoint and shutdown is much more profitable. But we should look into the reasons why China keeps the pipelines.
NK News: South Korean President Moon Jae-in last year said the DPRK would cross a “red line” if it developed a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). If the North crosses a red line, China could ban oil supplies to the North. What is Beijing’s redline?
Park Jong-chol: China doesn’t even know where they should draw the red line – the leadership warned the North in the past that its red line would be a nuclear test.
While the North has conducted six nuclear tests and has almost succeeded in developing the ICBM, Beijing hasn’t abandon Pyongyang. When the North conducted the first nuclear test, they should have raised sanctions enormously and tell that they could give up alliance as a means of putting the frighteners on Pyongyang, for instance.
But the situation is not like that at all. There are high chances for China to maintain its stance hovering in indecision like now. They can’t decide between peace and war, they can’t promote economic cooperation and curb the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons at the same time.
“China doesn’t even know where they should draw the red line”
NK News: UNSC 2397 limits the North’s imports of refined petroleum products to 500,000 barrels for a year from 2018, a radical reduction from an annual cap of 2 million barrels per year of all refined petroleum products suggested in UNSC 2375. How much will Pyongyang be hit by the resolution?
Park Jong-chol: UNSC 2375 and 2397 won’t damage the North Korean economy in general and it will maintain status quo. Whereas media reports and defectors claim that oil prices surged by 30% to 100%, they also assessed the supply and demand situations of rice and oil were stable. There is the gap between the North and the Western world over sanctions. As North Korean ordinary people don’t use petroleum, it’s not a blow from their perspective.
Sanctions targeting petroleum will have a serious impact on the North, but I believe there are considerable ways of circumventing sanctions.
While the western countries develop their chemistry industry depending on low-cost petroleum, North Korea has fostered its C1 chemistry industry while relying on coal and reducing the dependency on petroleum. The current UNSC resolutions won’t change Kim Jong Un’s calculus.
The North also uses petroleum, as lighter fluid, to increase firepower for the C1 chemistry industry even though it is coal-fired to increase the efficiency of the coal. Research on ways to use smaller amount of lighter fluid has been conducted extensively in the North. Pyongyang has focused on the coal industry as coals it is cheap.
NK News: The domestic goods market accounts for 20 percent of the North Korean national economy. Are there any specific economic fields of the domestic market that can be largely affected by the UNSC resolutions?
Park Jong-chol: The sanctions are causing trade reorganization. The economic fields that have a direct influence on the people’s livelihood will undergo hardship from the UNSC sanctions. A large number of North Koreans work in the sewing, fiber and clothing industry: the sewing industry – where many North Korean women work – will be the hardest hit.
“The sanctions are causing trade reorganization”
While businessmen selling coal to foreign countries suffer if sanctions prohibit the sales, the general public like them as they cause the price of coal to drop. And the thermal power stations use coal the most in the North, so electricity production can be increased. The C1 chemistry industry – which manufactures products with coal – can be fostered as the country could have enough fuel for the industry.
In the case of the fishing industry, some people have suffered and others haven’t. As the cost of fish falls because of the increase in quantity, the fishermen will undergo difficulties. This is the issue of the trade reorganization – I don’t believe the outcome of sanctions can be considered to be causing everyone to suffer.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)
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