North Korea gets by with a little help from its friends: Russia and China

North Korea gets by with a little help from its friends: Russia and China
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What happened to U.S. plans to denuclearize North Korea since the high-profile Singapore summit? A recent report from the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty Organization casts  doubt on Pyongyang’s denuclearization steps.  

On June 12, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness, ballots and battling opioids: Why the Universal Postal Union benefits the US Sanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth MORE and Kim Jong Un met to hash out an agreement to treat North Korea as a normal nation in return for that state’s abandoning of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

Hopes were nearly stratospheric after the one-on-one meeting between the two leaders. In return for denuclearization, Kim wanted:

  • an end to the United Nations sanctions;
  • a genuine peace treaty instead of an armistice stopping the Korean War;
  • formal diplomatic recognition of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK); and
  • the removal of 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea since the intra-peninsula war.
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The test-ban commission’s report seeks independent verification of the DPRK’s proclaimed demolition of its underground nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. It wants international inspectors to access the site and verify the claims. North Korea feels it has done enough and demands sanction relief before doing anything else.

 

Since Kim briefly stepped out of the cold at the historic meeting seemingly to embrace nuclear disarmament and reconciliation with the U.S. and South Korea, the world has looked for evidence of Pyongyang’s sincerity and American reciprocity for Kim’s apparent conciliation.

Perhaps we have been looking too much at the DPRK and not enough at its two key enablers of its nuclear-threatening behavior. The impoverished communist dictatorship could not have endangered the peace and security of East Asia during and after the Cold War without the diplomatic and material support from its two major patrons — China and the Russia.

It is significant that the Kim regime did halt tests of its nuclear weapons since the September 2017 nuclear detonation. The world is safer without these tests.

The early accomplishments now are being overshadowed by a recent U.S. report to the United Nations regarding North Korea’s breaching of the U.N. Security Council’s cap of 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum products per year.

Being diplomatically circumspect, the United States did not identify nations implicated in transferring oil from their ships to North Korean vessels at sea. In the past, both China and Russian ships made illegal transshipments.

In Addition, South Korean companies have transferred North Korean coal to their ships and then deposited the cargo in its own ports. Moreover, China has allowed some of its corporate entities to resume production in the North.  

The once-tight sanction regime that pressured Chairman Kim into bouts of reasonableness no longer hold his feet to the fire. The whole embargo regime, in fact, looks as porous as Swiss cheese. Little wonder, the DPRK can afford to drag its feet in fulfilling Kim’s denuclearization assurances.

Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury targeted three companies in China, Russia and Singapore for breaching trade restrictions on the rogue state. On its own, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinTrump at a pivotal crossroads on Iran Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't want war with Iran | Pentagon chief calls attack on Saudi oil facilities 'unprecedented' | Administration weighs response | 17th US service member killed in Afghanistan this year Iran: Rouhani, Trump won't meet at United Nations MORE’s sanction statement is a step in the right direction.

But realistically, it is unlikely to change minds in Moscow or China about violating the UN embargo. They can play the North Korean card whenever they wish to even the score with their American nemesis. 

Pyongyang could not survive without its Russian and Chinese enablers. Washington relations with its two main adversaries have worsened since the Singapore agreement. The escalating trade war with China has intensified and bilateral relations with Russia have deteriorated even with the Helsinki sitdown with Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Beijing has stepped up assertiveness in the South China Sea. Days ago, it warned off U.S. reconnaissance planes with notices to “leave immediately and keep out to avoid misunderstandings.”

To punish Putin, the Trump administration just imposed new sanctions on Russia for poisoning a former Russian spy and his daughter earlier in the year. Washington’s relations with its two rivals are on a downward spiral.

Neither adversarial power, therefore, is inclined to pull American chestnuts out of the North Korean fire. Both nations have facilitated illicit trade with their militant dependency. During 2018, the United States reported that the DPRK significantly increased ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products that wound up in its harbors.

The upshot of the patron-client phenomenon is that the economic and diplomatic pressure needed to bring Pyongyang around to verifiable denuclearization is evaporating. The North Koreans understand this emerging reality and the freedom of action it lends them.

The United States is left with bad options. It can attempt to keep a semblance of the sanctions on the North, despite the violations by Beijing and Moscow.

The South Korean government of Moon Jae-in is also a weak link in the sanction chain, preferring a peace treaty with its northern adversary followed by trade and bilateral cooperation.

Washington can accelerate regional deterrence by building up missile defenses on U.S. warships and on land within Japan and South Korea. But it can’t count on Russia or China to push the DPRK on America’s behalf.

Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the author of "America and the Rogue States."