China and the World

China the “detested enemy”

Will Beijing enforce the latest round of sanctions against Pyongyang?

Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun

In lock-step: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with his generals

The charge of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” originated in the 1950s and was used in moments at which Beijing wanted to express its disgust at the behaviour of foreign countries.

David Bandurski from the University of Hong Kong has reported 143 mentions of the offence in the People’s Daily newspaper to the end of last year. Japan is the worst of the wrongdoers with 51 cases, followed by the Americans with 35.

Whether the average man or woman in the street is genuinely offended in such instances is highly questionable, as was made clear when two Swedish nationals appeared on state television to apologise for the same offence in January (one a political activist, the other a bookseller from Hong Kong, see WiC311).

“To those foreigners saying on TV that they hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, let me just say that I am one of these Chinese people, and my feelings haven’t been hurt at all,” one netizen retorted.

All the same, China’s thinner-skinned citizens should look away now after news that North Korea has assigned them “detested enemy” status following Beijing’s decision to back the latest round of United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang.

The diatribe is unexpected and not a little ungrateful, given China’s role as North Korea’s sole remaining ally (and economic sugar daddy). Reportedly only the Americans are further advanced on the vilification spectrum, earning ‘feared enemy’ designation (although that doesn’t translate so well into English, as it implies too much respect).

Pyongyang’s hurtful remarks are said to have been part of an (alleged) correspondence between the leadership and the provincial committees of the Workers’ Party of Korea in which there were instructions to “soundly crush China’s pressuring schemes with the force of a nuclear storm for its betrayal of socialism”.

“We must no longer go easy on the Chinese and instead deal with them in order to change their attitude of taking us lightly,” the letter commanded, calling on North Koreans to “unite more firmly around Marshal Kim Jong-un and fight to the very end for final victory in our Juche revolutionary feat, even if graver hardships and difficulties blow this way.”

A copy of the letter was published by the website NK News, although it admits that it has not been able to verify the contents. Some specialists have derided the document as a fake. But the reports come at a time when Beijing’s patience with its longtime ally is rumoured to be running very thin.

In fact, China’s tougher stance on sanctions isn’t a complete break with the past. It supported UN resolutions against Pyongyang 10 years ago when Kim Jong-il tested a nuclear weapon. After another test in 2013, it summoned the North Korean ambassador in Beijing and reduced energy supplies to Pyongyang.

Ties between the two countries have frayed since the accession of Kim Jong-un four years ago. While Kim Jong-il visited the Chinese three times to ask for assistance in the final two years of his reign, his son has never met Xi Jinping in person. Relations also got off to an inauspicious start when the self-styled Young Marshal pressed the button on his own missile tests just as Xi was cementing his position as China’s new leader. The response was a (renewed) emphasis of Beijing’s goals for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and the downgrading of diplomatic ties with Pyongyang to “normal relations between states”.

Still, the Chinese have chosen not to isolate the North Koreans entirely, sending Politburo senior Liu Yunshan to Pyongyang last October to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the country’s ruling party.

Three months later, Kim conducted another nuclear test.

The latest round of sanctions require inspections for North Korean cargo-carrying vessels, bans Pyongyang from exporting many of its natural resources (including coal) and prohibits sales of aviation fuel and small arms to the renegade state. Critics say the Chinese must now enforce the measures they have supported, especially by clamping down on cross-border trade between Kim’s regime and the Chinese border city of Dandong. Representatives from American media outlets in the city have expressed scepticism about the application of the new rules, however, with the New York Times counting 200 trucks a day crossing into Sinuiju in North Korea. Only 5% of containers were being inspected, a local official admitted.

Yet Reuters was reporting late last month that the Chinese transport officials had blacklisted 31 vessels in accordance with the Security Council action and that North Korean ships were being blocked from docking in Chinese ports.

South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo has also reported that the Chinese stopped importing North Korean coal in early March and that banks in Dandong were being ordered to halt remittances across the border.

China has huge leverage over Kim’s regime, accounting for more than 70% of its international trade and regularly bolstering the country’s food and energy supply. That kind of support might be crucial in the coming months, following reports that an extended drought could prompt a rerun of the awful famine that killed more than three million people in the 1990s. “The road to revolution is long and arduous,” the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun warned last week. “We may have to go on an arduous march, during which we will have to chew the roots of plants once again.”

China’s frustrations with its neighbour are well known (see WiC309 for a more recent assessment), although its hesitation about pressuring Pyongyang more acutely is also widely understood. The collapse of Kim’s regime could see millions of desperate North Koreans pouring into China but Beijing’s worst-case scenario is a newly unified Korea staring back across the border, under Seoul’s leadership but allied closely to Washington.

Hence the mixed messages that have followed the new round of sanctions. “Pyongyang should not expect China to be able to protect its security through UN Security Council channels when it engages in reckless risk taking,” preached one editorial in the state-run Global Times. “What it creates will be a situation that China simply cannot control. Nuclear weapons and missiles are indeed powerful strategic tools, but in North Korea they have brought real and imminent national strategic risks.”

Yet the measures were also accompanied by warnings from Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi that “blind faith in sanctions and pressure” is “not a responsible approach” and that “China will not sit idly by and watch stability on the peninsula be destroyed”.

This second message is more likely to interest the impetuous Kim Jong-un. And as long as he calculates that Beijing sees his regime’s collapse as a greater threat than nuclear proliferation on its doorstep, the more he’s likely to push the launch buttons once again.

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