CHINA, NORTH KOREA, SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS

CHINA AND NORTH KOREA

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Korean-war-era friends poster
China is North Korea’s foremost ally. The two countries share a 1,415-km (880-mile) border. John Delury, a scholar of China and the two Koreas at Yonsei University in Seoul, told the New York Times: “Chinese diplomats are the only ones who can pick up the phone and talk to North Korean counterparts about what is going on, what to expect.

China sees North Korea as a strategic barrier against the United States and its regional allies. According to the New York Times, China wants North Korea to stand strong as a buffer state that keeps American troops in South Korea at a distance But that barrier comes with an economic and diplomatic price. China's trade and aid are crucial to Pyongyang's survival, but bring only puny economic gains to Beijing.

China helps North Korea to remain viable and keep going through economic assistance. China worried that the collapse of the current regime in the neighboring nation would seriously affect its own stability. The Bill Emmott, a columnist with the Times of London, wrote, “China wants the North as it is: a buffer against Japan and a way to avert a future troublesome unified Korea.” He regards North Korea as “the likeliest flashpoint for a potential conflict between China and the United States.” One possible scenario for such a conflict would be a bloody power struggle after Kim Jong Il dies that would force the United States to invade North Korea to secure its nuclear weapons, with such a move being interpreted by Beijing as provocation, forcing it to also send troops into North Korea.

Chinese policy towards North Korea is full of contradictions. China has joined the United States in imposing nuclear-related sanctions on North Korea but at the same it has exploited a loophole in the sanctions to remain Pyongyang’s main economic benefactor. China did little when it was determined that North Korea was behind the sinking of a South Korean warship the Cheon that killed 46 sailors. Beijing also single-handedly blocked a condemnation of North Korea by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) by using its UNSC veto]

Tania Branigan of The Guardian wrote: “The Chinese government seems baffled by the hermit kingdom's refusal to adopt their own, prosperous path of economic reform and opening. At Dandong the surviving Friendship Bridge now appears as loaded symbolically as the bombed crossing beside it: on the Chinese side, lights burn bright, but darkness falls abruptly halfway across. Energy is a scarce resource on the far shore.” [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian June 25, 2010]

China is the only foreign country other than Russia that Kim Jong Il has visited while leader of North Korea. In May 2010, Kim Jong Il paid a rare visit to China, traveling to Beijing in search of additional economic assistance. In return, he agreed to return to six-party talks. , hosted by China, though no date was set.

In February 2010, it was revealed that China planned to help North Korea with more than $10 billion in investments and aid. This came at time when the international community was pressuring North Korea with sanctions because of it nuclear weapons policy.

Chinese diplomats on a number of occasions have encouraged North Korea to return to the so-called six party talks on nuclear disarmament.

North Korea-China Relations

China and North Korea have been close allies since Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River to help North Korea fight U.S. and South Korean troops during the Korean War, which is referred to here as the "War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea." China provides for an estimated 90 percent of North Korea's energy needs and most of its food and weapons. And the most recent gauge of trade between the two countries, from 2008, showed an increase of more than 40 percent from the year before, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, November 27, 2010]

Harvard Prof. Joseph Nye told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “China has always said it wants a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, but it also wants a stable buffer state on its borders. And, of those two objectives, it's always placed much higher priority on having a stable buffer state on its borders. They fear a failure of the North Korean government would lead to floods of refugees or South Korean troops coming into North Korea, and so forth. And the net result is that North Korea has had a surprising amount of influence on China because of this very weakness. The threat of collapse makes the Chinese afraid of pressing the North Koreans. And this is why they say things which don't make a lot of sense, like being impartial on the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island.”

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “Chinese leaders themselves consider North Korea's leader an often-troublesome ally because of his brinkmanship with the United States over his country's nuclear capability and incidents such as this week's artillery barrage of Yeonpyeong Island, which killed two South Korean marines and Friendship Bridge provides a trade route of sorts, linking the North Korean border town of Siniuju with Dandong in northeast China. Friendship Bridge provides a trade route of sorts, linking the North Korean border town of Siniuju with Dandong in northeast China. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, November 27, 2010]

Classified U.S. cables released through Wikileaks November 2010 show China’s frustration with North Korea---with a former deputy Foreign Minister He Yafei quoted by a U.S. official in April 2009 calling Pyongyang a “spoiled child” over staging missile test to win concessions from the United States---and reveal speculation by U.S. diplomats that China could be open to the idea of a Korean peninsula unified under South Korea .

China has blocked reports on North Korea’s nuclear activities from being released to the entire United Nations.

China put pressure on North Korea to return to the six-nation talks during “an official goodwill visit” by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to North Korea in October 2009.

Kim Jong Il Visits China in 2011

Kim Jong Il made a week-long trip to China in May 2011. It was his third trip in a little over a year. According to South Korean President Lee Myung Buk in June 2011, China warned North Korea over attacks, saying “China delivered its intentions that it won’t stand by North Korea if it makes an additional provocation.”

Kyodo and South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported: “Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told South Korean President Lee Myung Bak on Sunday that Beijing invited North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to the country in an effort to help him learn about Chinese economic development and use it for rebuilding the North Korean economy. Kim traveled in China aboard a special train. Neither North Korea nor China has made any announcement on the trip. [Source: Kyodo and South Korea's Yonhap News Agency, May 22, 2011]

''Premier Wen explained to President Lee that China invited Chairman Kim Jong Il to provide the North with an opportunity to understand China's economic development and use the understanding for its own (economic) development,'' Yonhap quoted Hong Sang Pyo, Lee's spokesman, as telling reporters. Wen was quoted as telling Lee that Beijing opposes a nuclear-armed North Korea and would work to create an environment for inter-Korean dialogue.

As on his previous trips to China, Kim was shown such facilities as automobile and electronics factories as well as plants manufacturing equipment to produce solar energy, indicating China continues to hope Kim turns to reform. When asked why China invited Kim, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told South Korean officials the trip would the Kim “the opportunity...to understand China's development and utilize it [the knowledge] for North Korea's development."

Chinese Expert on China-North Korea Relations

Zhu Feng, Deputy Director of the Center for International & Strategic Studies at Peking University, wrote in Project Syndicate: “Why doesn’t China move more decisively to reign in North Korea? The conventional wisdom is that China doesn’t want to lose North Korea as a buffer between it and the US military in South Korea. Thus China does what it must, shoring up the Kim family dynasty to prevent Korea from reunifying on South Korean terms.” [Source: Zhu Feng, Project Syndicate, December 4, 2010]

“Every time North Korea acts provocatively---testing nuclear bombs, launching missiles, touting its secretive uranium enrichment facilities, and killing South Korean soldiers and civilians---China comes under diplomatic fire. Its chronic indecisiveness about the North and unwillingness to use its leverage, thus shielding its socialist ally, seems to reveal to the wider world a China obsessed with its own narrow interests.” [Ibid]

“But these interests are hard to quantify. The volume of China’s trade with South Korea is almost 70 times that with the North. Thus, if China truly is the mercantilist power that many in the West claim, it should tilt decisively towards the South. Moreover, China has no interest in stoking a “new Cold War” in East Asia... The irony is that Chinese dithering has incited Cold War-type concerns in South Korea, Japan, and the US.” [Ibid]

“China’s obsolete ideology plays a key role [its relations with North Korea]. Although China claims that it “normalized relations” with North Korea in 2009, its policies and attitudes toward the North remain mired in a morbid comradeship. For example, in October, on the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (the likely successor to President Hu Jintao) dubbed the conflict a glorious fight against a “US-initiated invasion.”[Ibid]

“A majority of Chinese dislike Kim Jong-il’s dynastic Leninist regime. And the two countries have diverged enormously in political, economic, and social terms. Yet China’s leaders remain incapable of seeming to abandon the North, no matter how odious its behavior. Their diplomatic values, after all, were shaped by an official emphasis on sympathy for the weak in any struggle against the strong, and by comradely reminiscences about the North---far and away the weakest of the participants in the six-party negotiations over the North nuclear armaments with the US, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan.” [Ibid]

“In the end, Chinese outrage at North Korea usually gives way to refusal to play any part in the demise of its neighbor and one-time ally. More than one Chinese official has told me of holding hearty affection for North Korea’s people. China’s leaders recognize that North Korea is a huge burden for them, but, like loving parents of a rogue son, they cannot bring themselves to disown him. These emotional ties, combined with the usual bureaucratic love of the status quo, are the real cause of China’s failure to overhaul its North Korea policy. Whenever a crisis erupts, China becomes agitated. But, instead of seeking a new path, it re-traces its old steps. Indeed, China’s North Korea policy is dominated by inertia rather than sensitivity to its own national interests. This is not to say that China’s policy on North Korea will never change. But change will require that China’s leaders find a way out of their psychological ambivalence.” [Ibid]

“Fortunately, Chinese thinking on North Korea nowadays is no longer monolithic. Indeed, among China’s elite no foreign-policy issue is more divisive. Given North Korea’s ability to scare China with its geographic proximity and the prospect of a sudden collapse (with all its security implications, including an influx of refugees), these divisions are likely to grow. As a result, China’s calculations about North Korea will remain complicated, even as the risks posed by the North’s behavior rise. China’s fears could be addressed by greater international collaboration, but China must be willing to cooperate as well, and, as we have seen again in recent days, it is unlikely to be forced out of its indecisiveness. That will only come when it opens its eyes to the real and positive possibilities of such collaboration.” [Ibid]

Frayed Relations Between China and North Korea

In October 2006, North Korea held its first nuclear test explosion, defying public pleas from China, and nuclear disarmament negotiations hosted by Beijing have languished for years without fresh progress or even fresh talks.

In the aftermath of the North Korean nuclear test of May 2009, Beijing loosened its grip on journalism about the DPRK in the Chinese media, using the new latitude to serve the Party’s foreign policy purposes. Publications about the North Korean role in starting the Korean War were suddenly acceptable, and, more importantly, a number of unflattering portrayals of the “weird” Kim family began to emerge. Chinese public intellectuals like Zhu Feng and Shen Dingli speculated about rapid changes in North Korea and the CCP made clear its desire, at the very least, for North Korea to transition to a more collective leadership centered in the Korean Workers’ Party rather than in the enfeebled Kim Jong Il or his relatively unknown successor. [Source: Adam Cathcart, China Beat, December 23, 2011]

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Relations between the two communist countries have had to endure complicated twists in recent years. Chinese officials were upset by North Korea’s sudden shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea in late 2010, and have lobbied North Korean leaders to refrain from further military actions, analysts say. Earlier in 2010, China was forced into an awkward position when South Korea and the United States accused North Korea of sinking the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, with a torpedo. The United States put pressure on China to agree with its allegation, which China refused to do. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, December 19, 2011]

Those incidents might have increased anxieties in China about North Korea, but they have also made North Korea more dependent on China for economic support. Two scholars of North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, estimated in a paper published this year that China and South Korea alone recently accounted for 55 percent to 80 percent of North Korea’s trade. After the Cheonan sinking, most trade with South Korea stopped, so China became an even bigger partner.

Frantic Efforts to Efforts to Adopt Chinese Models in North Korea Before Kim Jong Il’s Death?

In the 18 months before his death, Kim Jong Il, who previously rarely travelled abroad, visited China four times. During Kim's visit in May 2011 China and North Korea sides vowed that their alliance, "sealed in blood", would pass on to their successors.

Adam Cathcart. Assistant Professor History at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington and the editor of SinoNK.com, wrote in China Beat: In the weeks prior to Kim Jong Il’s death, China had been pressing for more clarification and motion on the two new island trade zones in the Yalu River near Sinuiju. While the Chinese side has been investing an immense amount of money in construction of what is essentially a new city outside of Dandong and a large new super-highway worthy bridge to the DPRK, the North Pyong---an leadership has been everything that privately infuriates Chinese partners: uncommunicative, inaccessible, and (according to the Daily NK) suddenly purged. [Source: Adam Cathcart, China Beat, December 23, 2011]

Far more promising is the development at Rason, on the far northeastern edge of the Korean peninsula, where China has brought in an old Korea hand named Tian Baozhu, a Kim Il Sung University graduate and former Consul-General in Pusan, to set conditions for further Chinese investment in this highly-desired port which finally offers eastern Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces access to the sea and cheaper means of shipping coal to ports like Shanghai. Rason remains a source of rumors from South Korea and the active advocates of immediate North Korean collapse, who often imply that China is not simply constructing the port but has secured it with a few thousand PLA troops. Such impressions are unlikely to slow the CCP in its push for more access and faster development of Chinese business interests, particularly in the minerals sector, in North Korea.

Chinese cultural exchanges with North Korea have been, in the DPRK context, incredibly extensive. The oft-maligned Korean Central News Agency has opened up exchanges with Xinhua, performing arts delegations tour across the Chinese mainland, and a Confucius Institute is open in Pyongyang with some 800 students. Tourism to the DPRK, another area of possible peril’seven Chinese tourists and businessmen were killed in a mysterious crash outside of Pyongyang on Thanksgiving Day---is an area where the Chinese side puts a great deal of stock and aims to develop further from even remote cities like Qiqihar and Mudanjiang. The extent to which the North Korean side remains committed to the speed and intensity of these relationships is something which the Chinese government is particularly keen to observe.

Chinese Policy Towards North Korea After Kim Jong Il’s Death

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Following the death of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, China is moving quickly to deepen its influence over senior officials in North Korea and particularly with those in the military to try to ensure stability in the isolated nation, according to Chinese and foreign former government officials and analysts. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, December 19, 2011]

Chinese leaders here had been hoping Mr. Kim would live for at least another two or three years to solidify the succession process that he had begun with his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, the former officials and analysts say. Uncertainty now looms over whether the younger Kim can consolidate his power in the face of competing elite factions and whether he and other leaders will continue initiatives begun by his father, including studying China as a model for possible economic reforms, the observers say. The elder Kim had made four trips to China in the last 18 months to look at a range of economic projects and Chinese leaders had urged him to experiment with reforms.

The greatest concern for China is whether Mr. Kim’s death will lead to a rise in tensions on the divided Korean peninsula. That scenario could unfold if generals in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, try to reinforce their hold on power through aggression toward South Korea. Unlike China, where the Communist Party stands as the ultimate authority, the military is the final arbiter in North Korea.

Mr. Kim’s death “means that China will have to assume a heavier responsibility over the relationship in order to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,” said Xu Wenji, a professor of Northeast Asian studies at Jilin University and a former Chinese envoy to South Korea. Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said, “The death significantly enhances uncertainty on the peninsula.” He added: “In my personal view, the succession is very hastily arranged and Kim Jong-un is very ill-prepared to take over.” “Frankly speaking, there is a substantial chance of political instability in North Korea,” he said. “This is based on the nature of the regime, the inadequate process of succession and economic hardships in the country.”

As anxieties bubbled to the surface in Beijing, so did signs of mourning. People brought bouquets of white flowers to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing and were allowed inside. Police officers surrounding the building kept all others at a distance. Evening newspapers in China ran front-page headlines above photographs of Mr. Kim. Xinhua, the state news agency, cited a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu, giving the official position on Mr. Kim’s death. Mr. Kim was a “great leader,” Mr. Ma said, and “China and North Korea will strive together to continue making positive contributions.”

There were some irreverent takes. Netease, a popular Internet portal, ran a topics page with a headline saying: “Kim Jong-il’s Death Shows the Importance of Losing Weight.” The subtitle was even more subversive: “A government is just like a human body, in that neither can afford to be too fat.” As of Monday evening, the page was still online.

“At this moment, China might provide the best chance of stability,” said Bob Carlin, a former State Department official and fellow at Stanford University who travels to North Korea. “They want to be the best informed and have a modicum of influence and have people consulting with them at this moment,” he added. “The rest of us are deaf, dumb, blind and with our arms tied behind our backs.”

Following Mr. Kim’s death, the North Koreans “are still going have to rely on China to large degree,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, an analyst based in Beijing for the International Crisis Group, told the New York Times. “China and North Korea are locked in this dance of interdependency. China is going to have to continue to be a big benefactor and bankroll North Korea to a big extent.”

Chinese Policy Towards North Korea and the Shock of Kim Jong Il’s Sudden Death

Chris Buckley and Ben Blanchard of Reuters wrote: China for years nudged Kim Jong-il to embrace economic reforms, but now he is dead will fear that any changes will come too quickly and unpredictably, threatening Beijing's hold on its needy yet distrustful neighbour. In China's opaque relations with North Korea, much can rest on a single phrase, and one word that Beijing used in its formal reaction to the death of Kim -- "distressed", which can also be translated as "shocked" -- conveyed some of the surprise and uncertainty probably weighing on Chinese policy-makers. "This is really going to throw a wrench in Chinese plans," Kleine-Ahlbrandt told Reuters."They, frankly, felt that Kim Jong-il was going to be around for a couple of years longer. They'll be a lot more nervous about what happens next." [Source: Chris Buckley and Ben Blanchard, Reuters, December 19, 2011]

Protecting stability on China's 1,415-km (880-mile) frontier with the North and throughout the region will be paramount. "This has really come out of the blue. It's not like it had been rumoured for a while giving everyone time to properly prepare," said Cai Jian, an expert on Korean affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai. "China's biggest worry will be over North Korea's stability, and China's aim will be to ensure the country remains stable," said Cai. "I think security will be stepped up in North Korea, and China is also likely to tighten security along the border."

"The Kim Jong-il era is over, and the post-Kim Jong-il era has begun, and this era will certainly bring change to the Korean peninsula. That's without any doubt," said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University who specialises in East Asian security issues. "The issue of primary concern now is not whether North Korea will maintain political stability, but what will be the nature of the new political leadership, and what policies will it pursue at home and abroad," said Zhu. "In the short-term, there won't be new policies, only a stressing of policy stability and continuity. So soon after Kim Jong-il has died, no leader will dare say that an alternative policy course is needed." "I think it's ultimately good news," Zhang Liangui, an expert on North Korea at the Central Party School in Beijing, said of Kim's death. "I think it's good news, because North Korea will finally have to change. Whether those changes will be for the better or the worse, we'll have to wait and see. But there's no doubt that change is needed and inevitable."

China’s Reluctant Embrace of Kim Jong Un

Adam Cathcart. Assistant Professor History at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington and the editor of SinoNK.com, wrote in China Beat: On December 21, Wen Jiabao went to the North Korean embassy in Beijing, bowed to Kim Jong Il’s portrait, and said: “We believe that with the Korean Workers’ Party under the leadership of comrade Kim Jong Un, the North Korean people will certainly powerfully pass through their grief, pushing forward to new successes in socialist construction.” It was a turn of events which but a few years earlier would have been seen as unlikely. Since Kim Jong Il’s stroke in 2008, and the rumors of Kim Jong Un’s existence as a viable successor to his father in early 2009, the CCP has gone through a number of stances toward the idea, ending in the acceptance of the successor. In the aftermath of the North Korean nuclear test of May 2009, publications about the North Korean role in starting the Korean War were suddenly acceptable, and, more importantly, a number of unflattering portrayals of the “weird” Kim family began to emerge. [Source: Adam Cathcart, China Beat, December 23, 2011]

However, after Kim Jong Un’s formal unveiling at the September 2010 KWP Congress in Pyongyang, the discourse shifted decisively toward a more supportive line toward the “young general.” Likenesses between Chinese and North Korean political cultures were emphasized; in mass magazine portrayals, CCP scholars encouraged Kim Jong Un to “make his mark via some achievements in writing about communist theory.”

Even Kim Jong Un’s foreign experience was highlighted in Chinese media as beneficial. It seemed that in some important ways, Kim Jong Un could be used to send home the message to China’s unreceptive youth: It may be fine to spend a few years studying abroad and fall in love with Michael Jordan, but when you come home, it’s all about the Young Pioneers and Party building. More importantly, the junior Kim’s probable role in North Korean attacks on the South Korean vessel “Cheonan” in March 2010 and on Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 was downplayed in the PRC. South Korean stories which asserted that Kim Jong Un had assumed control over North Korea’s northern border security, like most narratives focused on refugees, did not enter the public discourse in China.

The CCP’s evident nervousness about stability in North Korea, and its protective stance toward the DPRK, means that no loud public doubts about Kim Jong Un’s inexperience are presently welcome. Suggestions that the successor is incapable of leading, when allowed at all, are placed in the mouths of foreign experts like the International Crisis Group’s Daniel Pinkston, and qualified with some implication that South Korean media reports could all be false anyway.

North Korea appears to have made only a minor rhetorical concession to Chinese pressure by referring to the idea of “uniting around the Korean Workers’ Party and Comrade Kim Jong Un,” a phrase codified in the DPRK’s official response to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s initial statement of regret at Kim Jong Il’s death. Economic and Cultural Exchanges The legacy of Kim Jong Il’s rapid---one might almost say rushed---advancement of cooperation with China in 2010 and 2011 hangs in the balance, and the CCP will be eager for cross-border trade and tourism to resume. A rather explicit December 20 editorial in the Huanqiu Shibao, entitled “China is the Reliable Friend Upon Which North Korea Can Rely during Transition,” stated: “We suggest that as soon as it is appropriate, Chinese high-level leaders go to North Korea, where they will intimately communicate with North Korea’s new leaders at this special time that Pyongyang can send a distinct signal to the world [by taking the Chinese path].” Border security on the northern frontier remains a complex and sensitive issue, as well as military-to-military relations. The fact that eight North Korean border guards were reputed to have run headlong into the Liaoning hills in late November is not to be forgotten; the fact that China was hosting the Japanese Self-Defense Forces Navy in Qingdao (of all places) from December 19-23 is another area which under normal conditions might cause strain on Sino-North Korean relations.

Trade Between China and North Korea

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Exact trade figures are difficult to pinpoint. A paper published in December 2010 by the Congressional Research Service estimated that in 2009, exports from North Korea to China increased to $793 million, while Chinese exports to North slowed slightly to $1.9 billion. Chinese trade and investment undercut the economic sanctions that the United States and other nations imposed on North Korea to try to halt its nuclear program. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, December 19, 2011]

The trade can take many forms. Susan Shirk, a former State Department official and professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, told the New York Times she spoke with a North Korean man in Pyongyang in September 2011 who was conducting state-to-state trade with China. She said the North Korean worked for the Ministry of Foreign Trade, and he was selling iron ore to China at the price that China pays to large trade partners like Australia; in return, he was buying corn from China at the price on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange that day.

North Korean leaders are also trying to jump-start the languishing trade zone of Rason on the Chinese border and to get Chinese businesspeople to invest in tourism infrastructure that includes a creaking cruise ship running between Rason and the Mount Kumgang nature park.

Chinese Traders Cash in on Pyongyang's Isolation

Reporting from Dandong, China - Just across the Yalu River from North Korea, Keith Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “This sleepy border town in China's Rust Belt is booming. Towering apartment blocks are going up on the city's western edge near the new Friendship Road Bridge, which will soon be the second bridge connecting Dandong to the North Korean city of Sinuiju. Offices for trade and export-import companies dot the main road along the riverfront. A new airport is being built. Shops sell North Korean liquor, blueberry wine, ginseng, stamps and music CDs. And North Korean restaurants offer popular Korean dishes such as stewed dog leg and spicy deep-fried dog.”[Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, November 27, 2010]

“Dandong - like other parts of northeastern China along the 870-mile border - aims to profit from China and North Korea's growing cross-border trade, now close to $3 billion a year. Even as the United States and its allies are looking to isolate the Pyongyang regime for its nuclear program and erratic behavior, including the artillery attack on a South Korean island, this hardscrabble part of China is finding that being North Korea's back door to the world can be a lucrative business.” [Ibid]

“But even as officials map out grand plans for more cooperation, merchants and small-scale traders say doing business with North Korea remains problematic at best. The government is unpredictable, they say, and rules change without warning. They tell horror stories about Chinese traders who have lost millions of dollars in goods or equipment that is expropriated or stolen outright. Many now insist on cash-up-front transactions and mostly conduct business on the Chinese side of the border, where they say they have more protections.” [Ibid]

Moreover, while North Korean leaders have visited this part of China and professed admiration for China's economic boom, local Chinese traders and businessmen in close contact with North Koreans say they don't expect the country to shift to a market economy anytime soon. "I haven't seen any sign the North Korean government wants to open up," said Cui Weitao, 47, who traded fruit, clothing, plastic bowls and chopsticks to North Korea for the past decade. "If they really wanted, they could learn from China and Russia. If they wanted, they could let people go back and forth and trade freely. . . . If they opened the border, their whole country would benefit." His friend, Wang Tiansheng, 47, another small-scale trader, agreed. "The thought of economic reform has been there for years but never happens. Not while the father is alive," he said, referring to the country's leader, Kim Jong Il. "Maybe when the son takes office." [Ibid]

North Korean Border Guards Kill Chinese Smugglers

In June 2010, North Korean border guards shot dead three Chinese smugglers as they approached the North Korean city of Sinuju. China has lodged a formal diplomatic protest. The incident was reported by a defectors' organization  North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity  which said the three Chinese men were copper smugglers. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, June 8, 2010]

There have been similar reports of shootings in the past, but they are not normally confirmed by either of the two governments. Smuggling is commonplace across the highly porous border and, according to residents, is a source of bribes to security personnel on both sides.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency said the dead men were well known smugglers in their hometown Dandong on the North Korean border and had made prior arrangement as usual with their North Korean partners.

Chinese-North Korean Economic Reforms and Free Trade Zones

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post,”Chinese leaders are reported to be concerned about North Korea's economic crisis, and they encouraged Kim to embrace market-based economic reforms when he visited China in May and August this year and met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, according to some Hong Kong and South Korean media reports.In a bow to reforms, North Korea sent a dozen mayors and provincial chiefs to northeastern China in October to visit factories and chemical plants. Earlier this month, North Korean Premier Choe Yong Rim visited Harbin, in Heilongjiang province, to discuss joint economic projects.” [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, November 27, 2010]

In May 2011 it was announced that North Korea and China will start work on developing a river island on their border as a free trade zone. “North Korea agreed to lease two Yalu River islands to China to develop into “free trade zones,”" Richburg wrote. “Chinese high-tech companies were encouraged to sign agreements to hire North Korean computer experts. In September, after Kim's second visit, China established a new 100,000-square-foot marketplace in Tumen - across from Namyang in North Korea - for North Koreans to come on one-day passes to sell or trade their goods. [Ibid]

But the Tumen market in many ways illustrates the difficulties of coaxing North Korea to open up. The vast market is now mostly empty because the North Korean government changed its mind about allowing its citizens to come to China to trade freely, Tumen residents said. One of the few Chinese vendors in the market during a recent visit, who was selling North Korean crab, shrimp and frozen fish, said he lost a lot of money because his North Korean supplier increased prices without warning."It's been really hard and risky to do business with North Korea, firstly because of the complicated procedures of going there," the seafood vendor said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He said Chinese traders need an invitation from a state-owned company and three stamps from three departments. Once inside North Korea, he said, officials "are very greedy. They asked us for digital cameras or DVD players or even computers. We have to buy them dinner, and booze is a must for every time we meet." [Ibid]

Even the new Friendship Road Bridge being constructed - to augment the existing single-lane bridge - has been difficult to negotiate. China agreed to foot the bill for building the bridge, more than $200 million. But then North Korea demanded China also build a five-star hotel and other infrastructure on the North Korean side, local businessmen said. While trying to "deepen their economic integration with China" at the official level, Noland said, North Korean leaders at the same time take steps "to eradicate this kind of normal trading activity at the border" by denying visas and constantly changing the regulations. "The Chinese do not trust the North Koreans at all," Noland said. [Ibid]

Economists say that while North Korean officials publicly claim to want to pursue economic reform, and may speak of emulating China's success, North Korea's ruling elite remains deeply ambivalent about anything that might dilute its grip. "The state has never been comfortable with the market," said Marcus Noland, senior researcher with the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, who surveyed 300 Chinese companies operating in North Korea. "They see the market potentially as an alternative path to wealth and prestige, and perhaps political power." [Ibid]

China and Future Economic Reforms in North Korea

After a decent interval, North Korea will probably pursue economic changes that will present opportunities and worries to Beijing, said several Chinese experts, Reuters reported. "In economic policy, I think there will be major changes now that Kim Jong-il has passed away, and also in economic opening up there'll also be significant steps," Wei Zhijiang, director of the Korea studies institute at Zhongshan University in south China, told Reuters. "The generation of Kim Jong-un have a strong awareness that North Korea can't remain isolated from the world."

Beijing will hope the younger Kim will embrace more measured economic reforms that will ease the chronic shortages enduring by North Koreans. But any wider opening by the North to South Korea and its allies could dilute Chinese economic and political influence, something that fuels strategic worries in Beijing. And China could also worry that any changes could spiral beyond the grip of Pyongyang's leaders and their Chinese mentors.

In the past 18 months, Kim, who previously rarely travelled abroad, visited China four times. During Kim's visit in May the two sides vowed that their alliance, "sealed in blood", would pass on to their successors.

Activists Say China Returned 31 N. Korean Refugees

In March 2012, AFP reported: China has repatriated all 31 North Korean refugees it arrested last month despite international pressure against the move, refugee advocates in South Korea said. The advocates say the refugees could suffer abuse or even execution for fleeing North Korea during the mourning period for its late leader Kim Jong-Il, who died in December 2011 and was succeeded by his youngest son Kim Jong-Un. [Source: Park Chan-Kyong, AFP, March 9, 2012]

Do Hee-Yun, head of the Seoul-based Citizens' Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees, said the refugees left North Korea in three separate groups and were arrested in different places in China. "They were returned to the North clandestinely over the past two weeks," Do told AFP. "They are likely to be severely punished as they fled the North during the mourning period."

Rumors are common near the border that the new leader issued a shoot-to-kill order against people attempting to cross the border during the mourning period and also called for stern punishment for their relatives, Do said. North Korea has in the past treated its citizens who crossed the border to find food with relative leniency while punishing severely anyone who attempted to flee to the South, according to the dissident group North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity. More recently, all refugees are now treated as traitors worthy of severe retribution, the group of North Korean defectors based in Seoul said.

Seoul has repeatedly urged Beijing to treat people fleeing North Korea as refugees and not to repatriate them. China says the group sent back in recent days consists of economic migrants and not refugees deserving protection. The UN refugee agency had also urged Beijing not to send back the North Koreans. Rights watchdog Amnesty International says returnees are sent to labor camps where they are subject to torture.

More than 21,700 North Koreans have fled to the South since the 1950-1953 war, the vast majority in recent years. They typically escape on foot to China, hide out and then travel to a third country to seek resettlement in the South.

China and South Korea

Beijing alienated South Korea by failing to criticize North Korea's shelling of a South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. Beijing response to the North Korean attack was relatively tepid. It failed to condemn North Korea and said both North and South Korea need “to do more to contribute to peace and stability on the peninsula...We express our concern over the situation.” But the Chinese press praised North Korea’s “toughness” and criticized South Korea’s for the “failure of the hard-line policies.” Favorable views of China in South Korea fell from 66 percent in 2002 to 38 percent in 2010.

In December 2010, two fishermen were killed and three were detained after a 63-ton Chinese trawler capsized and sank after ramming a 3000-ton South Korean Coast Guard patrol vessel. The trawler was illegally fishing on China’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The three fishermen attacked the South Korea coast guard officers with iron pipes and shovel but were ultimately freed after protests from the Chinese government.

According to a document revealed by Wikileaks reported by the New York Times: “The South Koreans even considered commercial inducements to China, according to the American ambassador to Seoul. She told Washington in February that South Korean officials believe that the right business deals would “help solve” China’s “concerns about living with a reunified Korea” that is in a “benign alliance” with the United States.”

South Korean Coast Guard Officer Killed by Captain on Illegal Chinese Fishing Boat

In December 2011, the Chinese captain of a boat suspected of illegally fishing in South Korean waters killed one coast guard officer and wounded another after the South Korean coast guard confronted the Chinese boat. AP reported, “Officers from two coast guard ships boarded the fishing boat over suspicions it was illegally operating Yellow Sea waters rich blue crabs, anchovies and croaker, when the captain attacked with an unidentified weapon, coast guard spokesman Kim Dong-jin said. [Source: AP, December 13, 2011]

A South Korean officer stabbed in the side was taken by helicopter to a hospital in the port city of Incheon but later died, Kim said. The other officer was stabbed in the abdomen and was to undergo surgery. The Chinese captain had minor injuries from the fight and was also taken to the hospital, Kim said. The weapon was not identified. Besides the captain, eight other Chinese fishermen on the boat were arrested and taken to Incheon, the coast guard said in a statement.

Ahn Sung-sik, a South Korean coast guard investigator, told reporters that the captain denies using violence. Sergeant Lee Cheong-ho, 41, the victim of the incident, was the second Coast Guard member to be killed while on patrol for Chinese intruders in three years. More than 20 maritime police personnel were wounded during this period.

Friction Caused by Chinese Fishing Boat Operating in South Korean Waters

South Korea had asked China's ambassador just week before to try to rein in illegal Chinese fishing. At that time South Korean authorities raised fines levied on foreign fishing vessels caught operating in Seoul's self-declared exclusive economic zone, an apparent reflection of the government's impatience with a rising number of Chinese boats found fishing in the waters. "Eradicating Chinese boats' illegal fishing in our waters is a most urgent task to safeguard our fishermen and fisheries resources," South Korea's Yonhap news agency said in a recent editorial. "The government should mobilize every possible means and continue the crackdown on illegal fishing." [Source: AP, December 13, 2011]

Chinese fishing fleets have been going farther afield to feed growing domestic demand for seafood. The South Korean coast guard says it had seized over 470 Chinese ships for illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea in 2011, up from 370 last year. The coast guard usually releases the ships after a fine is paid, though violence occasionally occurs.

The 2011 stabbing was the first deadly clash between the South Korean coast guard and Chinese fishermen in three years. In 2008, one South Korean coast guard officer was killed and six others injured in a fight with Chinese fishermen in South Korean waters. Last year, a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard vessels led to a diplomatic spat between the countries over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

The Korea Herald reported: “About 10,000 fishing boats come into Korean waters in the West Sea, most of them without permission. The Coast Guard has raised the maximum fine for illegal operations from 70 million won to 100 million won. The Chinese fishers' resistance has become increasingly violent, using all kinds of home-made weapons -- although not firearms -- with some fixing wire mesh around their vessels to keep Korean police off.” [Source: Korea Herald, December 14, 2011]

Starting in 2009, China's fishing fleet has also appeared to be acting in concert with the nation's perceived intention to press forward with claims in disputed maritime areas---2009 was the deadline imposed by a U.N. treaty for continental seabed contestants to file formal undertakings---and by a sense that the financial crisis in the West had opened the door to more assertive Chinese behavior in areas it had long regarded as falling within its legitimate sphere of influence. In March of that year, several Chinese fishing trawlers accompanied by two Chinese fisheries enforcement ships and at least one Chinese naval vessel harassed an American surveillance ship 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of China's Hainan island.

South Korean Response to the Killing by the Illegal Chinese Fishing Boat

Angry South Koreans slammed Chinese fishermen as "pirates," AP reported, while President Lee Myung-bak vowed to spend more on policing the country's waters after a Chinese boat captain allegedly stabbed a coast guard officer to death. During a protest at the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, a right-wing demonstrator rammed his SUV three times into a police bus guarding the building while others defaced a Chinese flag. A popular South Korean Internet post called for the shelling of illegal Chinese fishing boats. [Source: AP, December 13, 2011]

The JoongAng Ilbo daily newspaper called the fishermen "pirates" in a front-page headline, and the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial that the coast guard should have more ships at its disposal and be more forceful in the fight against heavily armed fishermen. President Lee told a Cabinet meeting that South Korea will get tough on illegal Chinese fishermen, according to the presidential Blue House office.

Many South Korean felt Chinese authorities failed to adequately apologize for the 2011 fatal incident. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin expressed regret for the officer's death, though he glossed over Seoul's accusations that the captain fatally stabbed the South Korean officer.Asked at a daily media briefing whether China would compensate the dead officer's family, Liu said the Chinese government is working with South Korea "to investigate and verify the situation." He said China is ready "to settle relevant issues." Monday's deadly incident has touched off predictably angry sentiments among some Chinese, who accused South Korean authorities of bullying behavior.

An editorial the English-language Korea Herald read: “China has become a world superpower, but some of its people behave like Somalian pirates. The frequent, rather routine violations of Korean-controlled waters by Chinese fishing boats make us doubt that Chinese authorities have any concerns about the outrages at sea perpetrated by their people.” [Source: Korea Herald, December 14, 2011]

AFP reported: “Twenty lawmakers of the ruling Grand National Party signed a resolution urging Beijing to crack down on illegal fishing and calling on Seoul to impose tougher punishment on offenders. "The Chinese government should offer a responsible apology and vow to prevent a recurrence so that a sacrifice like this... would never be made again," lead signatory Chung Ok-Nim said in the resolution. "The government should safeguard our maritime sovereignty by strengthening punishment of illegal fishermen and violent offenders," said the resolution. [Source: AFP, December 14, 2011]

Hundreds of coastguard officers and tearful family members attended the victim's funeral in the western port of Incheon. "We will come up with fundamental measures so that a tragedy like this will never take place again," President Lee Myung-Bak said in a speech delivered by an aide. The officer's three children sobbed as they held a photo of him.

Officials say the Chinese captain accused of stabbing him will face a murder charge in the South while eight crew members are accused of obstruction. Amid growing diplomatic strains, South Korea's embassy in Beijing was hit by an apparent airgun shot, prompting Chinese police to launch an investigation, according to Seoul's foreign ministry and media reports. No one was hurt. A window was broken Tuesday apparently by a metal ball found nearby, a ministry spokesman said. Yonhap news agency said it appeared to have been fired from an airgun.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2012

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