Unraveling China-North Korea Relations

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Unraveling China-North Korea Relations

Two events that elucidate North Korea’s relationship with China in the aftermath of the fifth nuclear test.

Unraveling China-North Korea Relations

People look through binoculars toward North Korea across the Yalu River from Dandong, China (September 10, 2016).

Credit: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

In the aftermath of the fifth North Korean nuclear test, all eyes turned to the Sino-North Korean border, specifically the city of Dandong. Dandong is a second-tier city that has become the world’s primary hub for trade with North Korea, in spite of the regime in Pyongyang having given a cold shoulder to most of its public overtures. Dandong has also become a kind of laboratory for journalists and analysts who wish to grapple with the actual substance of China-North Korea relations. Namely, non-Chinese journalists and analysts look first to Dandong in order to get a sense of how hard sanctions are biting North Korea.

Dandong as the Center of the World

UN resolutions do not forbid cross-border trade, but it is the uninspected items within a growing trade flow and the possibility that banking sanctions are being evaded that concern the opponents of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. In the past month, multiple authors have noted how trade flows in the city appear to be flourishing, with little cargo examined by Chinese customs officers.

Even with the tremors from the September 9 nuclear test having shaken factories along the Chinese border, it initially appeared that the Communist Party of China (CPC) would not be clamping down on North Korea in Dandong. Indeed it appeared that Xi Jinping and his comrades were so disgruntled at the United States as to be disinterested in cracking down on North Korea.

Xi and the members of his Politburo who lean toward North Korea may also have been buoyed by Pyongyang’s own strategic propaganda flogging of the THAAD anti-missile issue, which garnered inclusion in speeches by the arch-propagandist Kim Ki-nam. As a Whitehall think tank paper argued just before the explosion of the nuclear test, in spite of a rocky year in bilateral relations, the CPC outlook on North Korea should be characterized as “continuity amid turbulence.”

In the first week after the fifth nuclear test, a few nasty remarks about Kim Jong-un by random Dandong pedestrians notwithstanding, it appeared that the two socialist allies were on the same page, that the economic lifeline to the PRC would remain wholly open, and that China would not seek a harsher enforcement of customs and exports to North Korea.

On September 15, days after the test, a new line of intrigue — and U.S.-China cooperation — opened up in Dandong, when a CPC security organ announced it was investigating what it called “irrefutable evidence of economic crimes” by Hongxiang, a firm owned the 43-year-old Ma Xiaohong.

As a relatively young and extremely well-connected entrepreneur and Party cadre, Ma and her company have been playing a critical role in economic ties to North Korea in Dandong and in Liaoning province generally for well over a decade. Based in the border city, it appears that the firm was exporting a huge amount of construction equipment and dual-use technology to North Korea. It was also involved in managing North Korean businesses in Shenyang, including the Qilbosan Hotel. In the type of deep-dive reporting it used to do before it was neutered by nervous cadres in Guangdong, in October 2006 the Southern Weekend newspaper described Ma as “one of the first gold prospectors in North Korea,” a fitting description since minerals and scrap metal were among her key business areas.

Is Ma’s arrest and investigation the beginning of the end of the North Korean nuclear program?

Probably not.

At its strongest, the investigation is a signal that the United States and China have reached a temporary point of alignment in the city of Dandong, if not that customs enforcement there will become much harder, as has been rumored, but not actually documented. Like the arrest of Kevin Garrett, the now-released Canadian missionary in Dandong, the investigation into the Hongxiang firm can feed several competing narratives.

For think tanks and Congressional researchers, and the committees to which they append themselves in Washington, D.C., the investigation of Ma Xiaohong is a bone provided by the CPC to show that economic cooperation on squeezing and sanctioning North Korea is possible and effective, even amid frictions over the South China Sea and THAAD. Even with that proviso, the Ma Xiaohong case is absolutely worth more discussion as a present wedge issue between China and North Korea, and as a venue for U.S.-China cooperation. We can expect more discussion of the case in Congress, pushed forward by extensive research reports, solid reporting, White House pressure, and South Korean efforts.

If D.C. ought to be abuzz about the action in Dandong, Chinese domestic audiences far closer to the actual action have heard far less about it. Given the drama involved in the fall of a charismatic businesswoman and her ties to the North Korean nuclear program, the case would appear to be a natural point of interest. But Chinese domestic media framing of the story is likely to be completely different from international outlets.

The all-purpose Party-scholar in Shenyang, Lü Chao, was the one Chinese scholar able to go immediately on the record about the case. Speaking to the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) on September 20, Lü said that China had already earnestly implemented all existing sanctions restrictions on North Korea. But, he stated, it was far too early to draw conclusions about the Hongxiang case, and he warned the tabloid’s readers against Americans and South Koreans who would take the case as an incitement to “exacerbate contradictions, incite quarrels, and heighten tensions” between China and North Korea.

Mainland coverage of the international aspects of the case has been muted, and may end up focusing on the ostensibly courageous fight against corruption within the CPC in Liaoning, rather than dwelling on the benefits subsequent to removing a North Korean partner in coordination with the Obama administration.

There is also the sequencing behind this particular CEO being targeted: Having been included in an extraordinary purge of provincial Party delegates to the National People’s Congress, Ma was, perhaps, already expendable. Borrowing language from Mao’s “Three Anti, Five Anti” campaigns of the early 1950s, Ma Xiaohong seems destined to become one of Xi’s “beaten tigers,” effectively sacrificed.

Naturally the whole story has yet to be told, and will surely take some months to unfold. For readers looking for questions about North Korea that cannot be answered by a missile specialist, the Dandong imbroglio offers more than a few: Will anti-corruption efforts in Liaoning continue to align with U.S. imperatives of containing North Korea? To what extent was Hongxiang tied to former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, or directly encouraged by his 2010 love-in with the decaying Kim Jong-il? Is the Ma Xiaohong ouster a one-off assault on North Korean business networks in China, particularly the northeast, or does Xi Jinping have harder twists in mind when it comes to squeezing North Korean business ties and dropping dead weight on Kim Jong-un’s desk? Was Ma involved in business dealings with Jang Song-thaek, the executed uncle of Kim Jong-un?

Perhaps the possible involvement of Wen Jiabao and/or the entanglement of Jang Song-thaek with the case explains why the CPC official media has not been eager to make waves with the Hongxiang investigation. But having thrown a charismatic female CEO under the proverbial bus, the Communist Party will have to be content with a few excited mentions by members of the U.S. Congress who have been calling for this kind of thing for years.

As important as this all may be, the action in and reporting from Dandong is not at all the end of the story, nor does it tell us everything we need to know about what is going on in the Chinese-North Korean border region. Just as there is a problem with relying only on satellite data as your mainstay of analysis (Chinese texts or fieldwork? Certainly not!), there is a problem with sending a reporter to Dandong and saying your organization has covered the border as a whole.

After all, there are two rivers dividing the two countries, not one. I emphasize as much because there is another river which we overlook at our peril, particularly in understanding the big picture of Sino-North Korean relations in the aftermath of the test, and that is the Tumen. China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture borders on the Tumen River, and the Tumen happened to flood in the week before the nuke test.

What is happening in the extreme north of the border region, in the Tumen River valley, is arguably more interesting and important to China’s approach to North Korean instability than the economic intrigue in urban Liaoning. So let us venture north to find out what and why.

Contingency Planning and China’s Response to the Tumen Flood

The largely effective response by the PRC to the flooding of the Tumen river indicates China’s confidence in its ability to secure the border region in the event of a broader collapse in North Korea itself. The North Korean nuclear test therefore occurred in the middle of what was effectively a Chinese drill for emergency response to an environmental catastrophe in North Korea, and a possible refugee spillover.

Very few international media reports of the flood dealt in any way whatsoever with this idea. AP reporting from the flood zone itself appears to have been done by an employee of the KCNA, North Korea’s own state news agency, so the emphasis on North Korean heroism and self-regarding urgency is hardly surprising.

China’s state media provided a great deal of data, most of it cloaked in heroic portrayals of Party officials. The first noteworthy aspect of China’s emergency response to the Tumen floods was its ability to control the Chinese side of the border. Whole villages were evacuated prior to the cresting of the waters, including Kaishantun, a village best known for its previously having been attacked by North Korean armed deserters and subsequently visited by Jane Perlez of the New York Times. Evacuated locals in Helong and Tumen were swiftly moved into local gymnasiums, and private firms (inevitably affiliated with the CPC in any case) provided funds of up to 50,000 RMB ($7,500) to Chinese farmers whose harvests were flooded.

Probably most striking of all was the approach to border security and North Koreans hit by the high waters. As one report from September 3 explained, PRC border guards and local police flew drones over the Tumen River to look for survivors. At least three North Koreans were brought over to the Chinese side of the border near the Namyang/Tumen crossing, and one was even flown by helicopter to a special medical unit set up at the Yanji Airport, about 35 kilometers inland from the border, for treatment.

The head of Jilin province made the rounds, but it was the head of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Jiang Zhaoliang, who was tasked with checking the status of the border surveillance network along the Tumen. There was little discussion of the role of the People’s Liberation Army, which has restructured somewhat in the northeast, apart from the hard work of units near Tumen to build up flood defenses. By September 13, the city of Hunchun was hosting regional meetings on tourism for regional countries – to which no North Korean representatives showed up.

What does this tell us about China-North Korean relations generally in the aftermath of the fifth nuclear test? It shows us China’s confidence in handling catastrophe in the very region that would be most affected by a North Korean collapse. This is hardly the entire picture of its relations with DPRK, but keeping the Tumen valley in mind is helpful for reminding ourselves that Dandong is hardly all that matters to Xi Jinping and his comrades when they look at the challenges posed by North Korea.

Adam Cathcart is lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds, and the founder of the Sino-NK website. His new book, a co-edited volume entitled Change and Continuity in North Korean Politics, will be published next month by Routledge.