Daniel W. Drezner

China Goes Public on North Korea

China Goes Public on North Korea

There’s a lot going down in the world this week — unpopular government shutdowns, popular negotiation preliminaries with Iran, ongoing terrorism in Africa, United Nations action on Syria, damaging intelligence leaks by Edward Snowden U.S. intelligence officials

In this kind of current events overload, it would be easy for North Korea to get lost in the shuffle.  This would be a shame, because China has done something rather extraordinary over the past week.  Jane Perlez explains in the New York Times:

longtime patron, produced a list of equipment and chemical substances it banned for export to North Korea, fearing that the North would use the items to speed development of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear bomb on top.

The publication of the 236-page list of banned items came as a surprise to many who follow North Korea and China, given China’s longstanding reluctance to do anything that might destabilize the North and allow the United States any more power on the Korean Peninsula.

Both Chinese and Western analysts called the export ban an important development — if it is implemented fully — especially since the list appeared to have been approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government. Either the Politburo, or the group’s seven-member Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese power, gave the green light, they said.

The compilation of the items, down to their measurements in both inches and millimeters, was probably months in the making, and almost certainly involved the expertise of China’s nuclear and military bureaucracies, they said. The export ban would give a boost to United Nations sanctions imposed this year that were meant to starve the North’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear programs. The North gets many important materials from China, and American officials had long said sanctions would not work without more Chinese cooperation.

Why is this a big deal?  Well, based on what I know about this topic, I’d say there are two reasons these sanctions matter.  The first and more obvious reason is that China is doing the sanctioning, which counts for one hell of a lot more than the United States doing it.  The odds of economic coercion yielding actual concessions goes up when it’s an ally rather than an adversary doing the sanctioning. 

The second a less obvious reason is that China is implementing these sanctions very, very publicly.  This is more unusual.  Allies usually don’t like to talk about sanctions, because it acknowledges a rift in bilateral relations.  It also elevates audience costs on both sides, which makes it harder to negotiate concessions.  In this case, even the publication of the sanctions list itself is something of an intelligence find for the United States — as Perlez notes:

“The list gives a good insight into what China knows about the missile and bomb development of North Korea,” said [Roger] Cavazos, the former Army intelligence officer who now works as an analyst at the Nautilus Institute, which studies international security issues. “From what I can tell, it lays out almost all China knows about North Korea’s missile and nuclear program.”

Now it’s possible that these two effects cancel each other out, and Beijing decided to go public with sanctions in part to signal exasperation with its troublesome ally.  Still, this appears to be yet another data point suggesting that on North Korea, Xi Jinping has shifted China to a policy position closer to the United States.   

One last note — Perlez hints that the U.S. opening to Iran could have a bank shot effect in Pyongyang:

The diplomatic opening between the United States and Iran on Friday would give China another opportunity to “put the squeeze” on North Korea, said Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Beijing University. “Now Beijing can say to North Korea: ‘If you want to breach your isolation, you should do more.’”

Hmmm…… maybe

What do you think?