March 7 (Bloomberg) -- An accord hammered out between the U.S. and China sets the stage for the United Nations Security Council to vote as soon as today to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea for conducting a nuclear test explosion.
Agreement on the sanctions may signal a new level of cooperation between the U.S. and China under incoming President Xi Jinping, who’s looking for a stable relationship with the U.S. as China’s economic and political power grows in Asia, said Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“The U.S. and China have the most to lose if North Korea instigates a conflict in the region,” Cronin said in an interview. “If we are going to try to put a de facto moratorium on North Korea’s missile program and nuclear weapons program, China will go along if the U.S. is not aiming to balance the region against China.”
The council is scheduled to take up the sanctions resolution today that is also directed at North Korea’s ruling elite, who have been somewhat sheltered in the past by China, North Korea’s largest trading partner.
The new measures target “illicit activity” by North Korean diplomats, bulk transfers of cash by North Koreans, and banks and companies that may be funneling cash or materials to support the country’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. China’s support appears to reflect its mounting frustration with the North after the Feb. 12 nuclear test in defiance of both the UN and the Chinese government.
Yachts, Racing Cars
The sanctions seek to halt the North’s imports of technology for its weapons programs as well as its ability to raise cash by selling its nuclear, missile and military technology to other countries. The draft text includes bans on equipment used to make chemical and nuclear weapons, front companies for the country’s weapons programs and importation of yachts, racing cars and jewelry for the regime’s elite.
Moves to impose new sanctions on North Korea began after the country tested a three-stage ballistic missile last year and intensified immediately following the nuclear test that showed the country is assembling the building blocks for a nuclear-armed ballistic missile that could reach as far as Hawaii.
U.S. officials refused to discuss how the agreement was reached, and referred reporters to remarks made by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice after the draft resolution was delivered to the council on March 5. Rice said the U.S. had “very intensive and productive discussions in consultations, particularly with China,” and said she was “pleased that this has occurred with relative speed.”
“In the eyes of the international community, common sense said something had to be done and the Chinese were very sensitive to that as well,” said Evans Revere, a former U.S. diplomat who is senior director with the Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington, providing strategic advice to clients on Korea, China and Japan.
“I would not want to suggest this represents any significant turnabout in U.S.-China relations,” said Revere, who is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “But if the resolution has the teeth and bite it appears to have and if the Chinese can this time be vigorous in enforcing the new resolution as well as the previous ones, that would certainly be a positive development.”
While Chinese officials at the UN didn’t respond to a request for comment, a hint of official Chinese frustration toward the regime now headed by 30-year-old Kim Jong Un emerged in a Feb. 27 opinion article in the Financial Times by Deng Yuwen, deputy editor of Study Times, the journal of the Central Party School of China’s Communist Party.
“China should consider abandoning North Korea,” Deng wrote. A nuclear armed North Korea might put China on the losing side of any confrontation on the Korean peninsula, and North Korea’s ruling elite simply won’t allow the regime to reform, he added. “Beijing should give up on Pyongyang and press for the reunification of the Korean peninsula,” he wrote.
“If, in fact, the U.S. and China are now collaborating in pressuring North Korea, this represents a major concession by the Chinese and the first instance of working together with the U.S. on an issue where they have had to abandon an old ally,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.
“You don’t want to draw too much from it, but it suggests this new leadership wants to do exactly what Xi Jinping said it did want to do: establish a new and better relationship with the U.S.,” said Schell.
The Chinese are also clearly worried that a nuclear-armed North Korea could provoke an incident that would send millions of people flooding across its 880-mile border, he added.
“They really look at Little Kim as an extension of a lunatic regime that is threatening China,” he said referring to the North’s leader. “The last thing China wants is trouble there -- it’s a big border and there are a lot of hungry people on the wrong side of it.”
North Korea said March 5 it may cancel the 1953 cease-fire that ended the Korean War, citing the sanctions effort as well as U.S.-South Korean joint military drills, according to a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
The North Korean military will suspend its activities at Panmunjom truce village at the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, and shut off a phone line with U.S. forces stationed in the South, the news agency said, citing an unidentified military spokesman.
South Korea today pushed back against North Korea’s rhetoric, vowing to counter any potential threat.
“North Korea’s current military drills can lead to provocation at any time,” Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok told reporters in Seoul. “South Korea’s military is preparing so that we can respond and punish them for any provocative acts.”
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