It was reported in late February that China is looking into allegations that it may have been involved in aiding a North Korean arms shipment bound for the Republic of Congo. The shipment, which contained North Korean parts for Congo’s fleet of vintage T-54/T-55 tanks, was intercepted by South Africa in November 2009 and reported to the U.N Security Council on February 23.
South Africa was authorized to inspect and seize the cargo, first discovered by the French vessel owners who were shipping it, under the auspices of U.N Security Council Resolution 1874, which prohibits the DPRK from importing and exporting all military hardware, including parts. The fact that the cargo was loaded onto the French ship at the port city of Dalian in China is notable. Indeed, it seems that the North Korean cargo was brought into Dalian right under the nose of Chinese customs officials, who one might assume to be more vigilant of exports from the DPRK. It turns out that assumption is not entirely accurate.
Having taken a train from Beijing to Pyonyang last summer, news of sanctioned cargo passing unmolested through China came as little surprise to me. As a ‘Non-Proliferation’ MA candidate boarding the North Korean carriages being hauled to the border by a domestic Chinese train, I was astonished by the sheer amount of cargo headed for Pyonyang on what was ostensibly a passenger service.
Of perhaps thirty North Korean cabins (each designed to sleep four people), a good twenty were full of goods. In these cabins the goods consisted mainly of large boxes, covered with strongly attached tarps that obscured their contents completely.
Other cabins were full of what one could describe only as ‘luxury’ consumer goods; DVD players, flat screen TVs, trouser presses, and even in one case, a huge (a few feet high) presentation brandy glass. Even the corridors and vestibule areas (see my picture above) were rammed full of these boxes, some of which were also stacked amongst passengers in their own cabins.
When the train arrived at the border city of Dandong, Chinese customs officials boarded the North Korean cars to check our passports, visas, and bags. Although they did speak to the North Korean guards for a few minutes, they soon disembarked our part of the train. No attempt was made to inspect the cargo of mysterious boxes I mentioned, nor were any concerns raised about the many openly visible ‘luxury goods’ being transported. This was presumably excusable because China, unlike other countries, has never actually defined what it considers as ‘luxury goods’ for North Korea. Luxury goods are banned from being exported to the DPRK under UN Resolutions 1718 and 1874 because of the suspicion that they are for and used solely by the ruling elite.
Although my experience relates to Chinese customs apathy over North Korea’s imports, together with South Africa’s recent allegations, it is probably the case that exports from the DPRK are being waived through China in a similar way. This notion is backed up by a shipping company source in Dalian (referenced in the Wall Street Journal) who claims that Chinese customs officials there rarely inspect North Korean goods arriving for trans-shipment on their way to a third country. China’s official position is that inspecting North Korean cargo is both “complicated” and “sensitive,” and that “under no circumstances should there be the use of force or the threat of force” in implementing the sanctions in Resolution 1874.
The China-DPRK relationship has often been likened to that of the ‘teeth and lips’, following the Chinese saying that when the lips are gone, the teeth feel sensitive. This is the nub of why China remains reluctant to take its sanctions obligations to the letter.
First, by supporting North Korea, China ensures a friendly dictatorship on its border, and thus, a buffer zone against a potentially destabilizing democratic South Korea. Beijing also has to think of its own people living in the border area, many of whom are reliant on China’s ever increasing interconnectedness with North Korea. Furthermore by keeping alive the regime in Pyonyang, China avoids having to deal with the millions of refugees that could flow across its border in the event the North Korean regime collapses. Turning a blind eye to imports and exports from North Korea can therefore be seen to suit these Chinese policy objectives.
With the news from South Africa, the total number of sanctions violation cases being investigated by the Security Council since the implementation of Resolution 1874 now stands at four. The others involve the shipment of chemical suits to Syria, Thailand’s interdiction of arms allegedly en route to Iran, and Italy’s seizure of two luxury yachts destined for North Korea. But it’s unlikely that these four cases represent the only North Korean efforts to flout sanctions.
Indeed, given North Korea’s meek GDP of $27 billion, it is doubtful that Pyonyang would continue risking the seizure of highly valuable assets unless a clear majority of these were being traded successfully. It’s probably safe to assume that not every shipment of proscribed goods is being interdicted, and that many more may be leaving and entering North Korean territory undetected – with China’s tacit support.
If it is true that North Korea’s WMD programs are being funded principally from illicit arms sales, then it is imperative that China take its sanctions obligations more seriously. Whether this duty will ever be compatible with China’s goal of maintaining North Korean regime stability is, however, another question.