U.S., Allies Prod China on North Korea

Peter Crail

The United States and its East Asian allies called on China to place additional pressure on North Korea in December following a series of provocative actions by Pyongyang that they say violated international laws and regional security arrangements.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, speaking at a joint press conference with his South Korean counterpart, Gen. Han Min-koo, Dec. 8, said it is now time for Beijing to “step up” to its “unique responsibility” and “guide the North, and indeed the whole region, to a better future.”

He criticized China for not condemning a Nov. 23 North Korean artillery barrage directed at the South Korean island of Yeongpyeong that killed two South Korean marines and two civilians. Mullen visited South Korea to discuss joint military exercises in response to the North Korean shelling, as well as “how we view provocations in the future and what kind of responses there should be across the full spectrum of opportunities,” he said.

The United States, South Korea, and Japan called the attack on Yeongpyeong a violation of the 1953 Armistice Agreement, which formally ended hostilities between North and South Korea. The two countries technically remain in a state of war.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a Dec. 6 press conference with the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers that the attack was “the latest in a series of provocations” by North Korea in 2010, citing the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March and the public disclosure of a uranium-enrichment facility in November in defiance of UN sanctions. (See ACT, December 2010.)

In response to North Korea’s actions, China urged “restraint” by all parties and called for an emergency session of the six-party talks involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Wu Dawei, Chinese special representative on Korean peninsular affairs, told reporters in Beijing Nov. 28 that, “after careful studies,” Beijing proposed such talks “to exchange views on major issues of concern to the parties at present.” The six-party talks have been held intermittently since 2003 to negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo rebuffed the Chinese call for talks, calling for changes in North Korean behavior first.

“We remain committed to seeking opportunities for dialogue,” Clinton said alongside her counterparts, “but we will not reward North Korea for shattering the peace or defying the international community.”

She added that the three countries agreed that relations between the two Koreas must improve and Pyongyang must take steps to implement prior denuclearization commitments before the six-party talks could resume.

Sanctions Enforcement

Although the three allies outlined steps that they expected North Korea to take prior to the resumption of negotiations, they also called for the full implementation of UN sanctions against Pyongyang, highlighting China’s role in that effort.

Citing China in particular, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Susan Rice told reporters Nov. 29 that implementing the UN sanctions is “in the interest of the countries in the region, and we expect them to take steps that are consistent with their obligations and all of our obligations under UN Security Council resolutions, and to work, as we all must, to uphold them and implement them.”

Since the Security Council first adopted nonproliferation sanctions against North Korea and Iran in 2006, U.S. officials have often stressed the need for Chinese efforts to enforce them. Robert Einhorn, the Department of State coordinator for Iran and North Korea sanctions, traveled to China in September to press for Chinese implementation of the UN sanctions and to raise concerns about Chinese firms exporting illicit goods and technologies to the two countries.

“We did provide some information to China on specific concerns about individual Chinese companies, and the Chinese assured us that they will investigate,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said of Einhorn’s visit during an Oct. 19 press briefing.

An April 15 Congressional Research Service report on the implementation of the UN sanctions against North Korea said that the Obama administration “may have to calculate the degree of pressure to apply to China if Beijing does little to enforce the Security Council sanctions.” The report noted in particular that Pyongyang relies on North Korean companies with offices in China for its illicit nonconventional weapons trafficking.

Chinese officials have often claimed that although Beijing is willing to respond to any activities of proliferation concern in its territory raised by the United States, Washington does not provide enough information for Chinese authorities to act.

However, a 2007 cable released by the group WikiLeaks and published by the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper Nov. 28 appears to detail efforts by the United States to provide Beijing with specific information regarding North Korean proliferation to Iran. The cable says that the United States provided Chinese officials with detailed information, including the airway bill and flight number, on a November 2007 air shipment of North Korean missile-related goods to Iran transiting through Beijing’s airport.

The cable further says that the United States believed that at least 10 such air shipments had traveled to Iran via Beijing and expected the number to grow in the future. The cable adds that Chinese action was necessary to “make the Beijing airport a less hospitable transfer point.” The shipments were believed to have assisted Iran’s development of solid-fuel missile technology.

The cable also notes that the provision of such details followed a pledge by President George W. Bush during a September 2007 meeting in Sydney to respond to Chinese President Hu Jintao’s request for additional information on suspected illicit transfers.

Former State Department officials interviewed by Arms Control Today said that the level of information provided to the Chinese was not unusual. “It shows the falseness of China’s claims that the US didn’t provide enough information to take action,” one former official said in a Dec. 17 e-mail.

Another former official said China’s response to such cases was “inconsistent” and that the information would only sometimes result in Chinese action. “We would give them what we could and sometimes they’d surprise us” by acting on the information, the former official said.

China’s response to the concerns raised by the United States in the cable is unclear.