Why are China and Russia standing up for North Korea? Their diplomatic relations, explained

Russia and China reportedly thwarted a US-led bid at the United Nations to declare that North Korea (DPRK) violated international sanctions by importing more petroleum products than stipulated.

Last week, 25 nations including the US, Australia, France, Japan, and Germany accused Pyongyang of breaching the annual import limit of 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum products, before the UN Security Council (UNSC) 1718 [Sanctions] Committee [on North Korea] monitoring compliance. The complaint included a demand for the committee to order an immediate halt on all illegal deliveries to NK.

Russia and China, North Korea’s main suppliers of petroleum products, notified their objections by the deadline on Tuesday, June 18. This closely resembles a similar veto last July, following another US-led request to publicly accuse North Korea of violating the annual quota for refined petroleum products, which are key to the country’s economy.

What’s the complaint about?

The complaint this year claims most of the excess petroleum products were obtained from dozens of illicit ship-to-ship transfers. A Security Council diplomat said North Korea was believed to have obtained 3.5 million barrels of refined petroleum in 2018, seven times the limit.

While meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe at a security conference in Singapore earlier this month, US officials showed evidence of China letting North Korea violate sanctions off its coast, including photographs and satellite images of North Korea getting shipments of oil, especially through ship-to-ship transfers.

While the international community has argued that the 50,000 barrels-cap is critical to maintaining pressure on Kim Jong-un’s regime that gets much of its heft from an increasingly sophisticated nuclear programme, China and Russia are back to taking North Korea’s side now that denuclearisation talks between the Donald Trump and Kim have failed.

In fact, the second summit between the two leaders in Hanoi, Vietnam, this year, hit a snag because of Kim’s persistent demand for sanctions relief in exchange for partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

History of sanctions

Sanctions against North Korea began in 2006 after its first nuclear test and has since only gotten tighter.

In 2017, the petroleum limit was adopted by the UN after Pyongyang declared it had developed a missile that could reach US mainland. The same year, the US also slapped sanctions on 16 Chinese and Russian companies, and individuals linked to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and energy trade.

While those sanctions were unanimously approved by all permanent UNSC members, Moscow had sharply rebuked the penalties against its own entities and warned that it would consider retaliation.

On Thursday, June 20, the US levied further sanctions against a Russian bank accused of aiding North Korea by opening accounts for blacklisted entities.

China’s gameplan should lead with economic aid

Chinese premier Xi Jinping is expected to visit Pyongyang ahead of his meeting with Trump at the G20 summit next week.

Convincing Pyongyang to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula in lieu of economic aid—given NK’s failing economy in the wake of international sanctions—are likely to top the agenda of the talks. Poverty, bad harvest, and severe food shortage have gripped North Korea.

Despite DPRK’s growing trade dependency on China, North Korean exports fell to abysmal levels in the first quarter of 2019, raking in just $54.6m, while imports were $455m, about half the average in the quarters before the stricter regime was introduced. 

Nevertheless, China remains the North’s largest trading partner, buying up 90% of its exports—including coal and textiles—and providing 94% of the country’s imports, according to US data.

According to Korean media reports, Xi has called for “new development of relations” between two Asian nations that have been allies since the Korean War (when Chinese soldiers fought for the North).

Also read: China’s long game for the Singapore summit

Russia and China rush to old ally’s aid, but why?

China was never very pleased with being excluded from the negotiations between the US and DPRK, which were mediated by South Korea. Nonetheless, it was in the loop, courtesy of Kim and Xi’s close relations that even resulted in the former’s first international trip to Beijing last year.

Now, Xi might try to nudge Kim back to the negotiating table, perhaps based on a roadmap worked out with Russia, according to analysts.

Both Xi and Kim have recently, albeit separately, met their Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, and are sure to have discussed the failure of the US-DPRK summit.

Whether the “special relationship” among this trifecta yields in nuclear concessions remains to be seen. But as Qrius has argued in several places, expecting DPRK to give up its trump card at the global table will not make it happen; the country is not about to surrender its nuclear weapons, because the regime considers them essential to its survival.

Read more: North Korea remains nuclear. Is a third Kim-Trump summit still on the cards?

As expected, nuclear facilities that should have been defunct have picked up recent activity, more abrasively since talks fell apart, suggesting that Kim may be trying to get Washington to return to the negotiating table in order to extract concessions without offering any determinable proof of nuclear de-escalation in return.

How an ill-kept sanctions regime is actually a setback

While that is an indisputable fact, it is also true that Kim is trying to refashion his image as a global diplomat by expressing a willingness to engage in talks. China, for example, has been trying to showcase the benefits of economic liberalisation and rapid growth to North Korea. But the US has categorically announced that any firm that provides DPRK ‘with access to international financial markets exposes itself to significant sanctions risk.’ 

According to experts, economic and strategic stability in the Korean peninsula, as long as it is on China’s terms, is favourable to Xi. It’s even better for Beijing if the US remains off the balance in the region. But it is also crucial that China tread carefully—it must adhere to the international sanctions regime but also ensure that the North Korean pride is intact.

Also read: Explained: Impact of China, Pakistan, and India increasing their nuclear arsenal

According to US experts, however, a global coalition with a coordinated enforcement agency is more likely to improve the current efforts to squeeze Pyongyang’s economy and thwart its nuclear ambitions. The Panel of Experts is more efficient than the 1718 Committee but has no enforcement authority, think-tanks have noted, when it comes to enforcing sanctions.

A paper published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) after a year of debate and expert analysis, however, warns against starving Kim into submission with sanctions. It will only make him more hostile and unpredictable. The FAS report comes at a time when the White House is trying to regroup and revamp its strategy to contain, engage, and transform, rather than aim for one-step denuclearisation.

Fifty-six countries were involved in violating U.N. sanctions on North Korea from February 2018 to February 2019, according to a report issued by the Institute for Science and International Security. But while some of these nations do not have the means to enforce them, China and Russia continue to deliberately flout them in defiance of the west.

While Washington-based analysts seem to think Trump is putting pressure on China that no other president has been willing to put before, with the Huawei ban and tariff war, sanctions on Chinese firms have failed to prod Beijing in the direction of enforcing sanctions against North Korea. Sanctions on Russian firms and banks have yielded similar lukewarm results.

Given the current atmosphere, stricter sanctions and the strengthening nexus of Putin-Xi-Kim may simply end up pushing negotiations underground and beyond the UN’s radar, much like DPRK’s nuclear programme.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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