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Generational Dynamics Web Log for 19-Feb-2017
19-Feb-17 World View -- China announces it will block imports of North Korea's coal

Web Log - February, 2017

19-Feb-17 World View -- China announces it will block imports of North Korea's coal

Assassination of Kim Jong-un's half-brother in Malaysia threatens relations with China and North Korea

by John J. Xenakis

This morning's key headlines from

China announces it will block imports of North Korea's coal

Kim Jong-nam (L), the assassinated half-brother of Kim Jong-un (R) (AP)
Kim Jong-nam (L), the assassinated half-brother of Kim Jong-un (R) (AP)

Two events in the last week -- North Korea's test of a long-range ballistic missile and the assassination, possibly by North Korean agents, of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of president Kim Jong-un -- have infuriated and embarrassed China's leaders, since they enormously complicate China's foreign policy.

The ballistic missile test is particularly troubling to China's leadership for several reasons:

China's announcement on Saturday that it would suspend all coal shipments from North Korea was a surprise, but not totally unexpected. On Monday of last week, the day after the ballistic missile test, China prevented a North Korean ship from unloading a shipment of 16,295 tons coal, worth about US$1 million, at a Chinese port, and ordered that it be returned to North Korea. However, China blamed the rejection not on the ballistic missile test, but instead on a claim that the coal contained higher-than-permissible level of mercury.

China's announcement could have significant economic impact on North Korea. In order to import foreign goods, North Korea needs foreign reserves. In order to get foreign reserves, it needs to export goods. About 90% of North Korea's exports go to China, and most of that is coal. So this announcement will severely limit the foreign goods that North Korea can import.

The intent is that by limiting North Korea's ability to import, the country will be unable to import that equipment required for further development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. It's not clear that this objective is realistic, as Kim Jong-un has previously been willing to allow his people to starve rather than to allow his nuclear weapons program to starve. No matter what the intent, Kim will let his people starve and will torture, jail and execute anyone who objects.

China implemented a partial ban on coal imports from North Korea last year, but left open a loophole that would allow some coal imports if they would benefit the North Korean people. The partial ban turned out to be a joke, because North Korean manipulated the loophole and actually increased coal imports to China by 12-14% after the partial ban was announced, which was extremely embarrassing to China.

China criticizes other nations for destabilizing the region, even though China continually destabilizes the region by confiscating other countries' territories and building illegal military bases in the South China Sea, while threatening Japan in the East China Sea. This entire political strategy is being thrown into chaos by the actions of North Korea.

China has the ability to bring North Korea to its knees economically, but both China and Kim Jong-un are well aware that doing so is a very high-risk strategy. A government coup in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital city, could bring to power someone that favors peaceful reunification with South Korea -- something that's quite possible now that three or four generations have grown up since the end of World War II and the Korean War. Or an even worse scenario is that a retaliatory act by Kim Jong-un might be directed at either China or South Korea (or Japan or the US), and this could lead to a war on the Korean Peninsula that would draw in the Chinese military and would result in millions of North Korean refugees pouring into China.

The point is that China is rapidly running out of choices. Allowing Kim Jong-un to continue ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development is extremely dangerous to China, but trying to stop that development with economic sanctions is also extremely dangerous. One can only speculate what China might try next -- perhaps some sort of military action or commando raid on North Korean military targets. But this is just one more area, like the situations in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where China's leaders are running out of time and they know it, and may become desperate enough to do something stupid. Yonhap News (Seoul) and BBC and Washington Post

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Assassination of Kim Jong-un's half-brother in Malaysia threatens relations with China and North Korea

Police in Malaysia have arrested four suspects believed to be linked to the assassination on Wednesday Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, the president of North Korea.

A woman tentatively identified as 28-year-old Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam has been positively identified as the assassin from CCTV footage from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. She allegedly covered Kim Jong-nam's face with a cloth laced with poison, causing his death within minutes. Before being captured, she changed her appearance several times. On Wednesday, she was wearing a white shirt with the large letters "LOL" on the front. A second woman said that they both thought that the whole thing was a prank sponsored by a reality TV show.

It has not been proven whether North Korea is responsible for the assassination, and there are other actors that might have wanted him dead. Jong-nam was playboy, and one can even imagine that the assassination might have been launched by a former girlfriend. But most people believe that Kim Jong-nam was killed under orders of his half-brother, Kim Jong-un, North Korea's child dictator.

This is not the first execution of a family member. On New Year's Day 2014, Kim Jong-un announced that he had ordered the execution of his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek, calling him "factionalist scum." According to unconfirmed reports at the time, Kim had his uncle thrown into a room with several ravenous dogs that hadn't eaten in several days. So although Kim Jong-nam wasn't eaten by ravenous dogs, the execution of Jang Song-thaek provides a recent precedent for the execution of close family members.

Malaysia has always gone out of its way to maintain good relations with China, but the assassination of Kim Jong-ang in Kuala Lumpur airport, whether ordered by North Korea or not, is causing a rift in relations between the two countries.

North Korea demanded the immediate return of the dead body to North Korea. Malaysia responded that the death occurred on Malaysian soil, and a full series of autopsies would be performed first. Furthermore, Malaysia would not return the body to North Korea until a DNA sample from Kim Jong-un was provided, in order to complete the autopsy.

On Friday, close to midnight, North Korea's ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol, stood in front of the morgue where the body was lying and gave a hysterical rant:

"We strongly urge and demand the Malaysian side not to be entangled with a political plot by the hostile forces towards the DPRK [North Korea] who want to damage image of our republic. And, to release the body immediately. ...

The Malaysian side forced the post-mortem without our permission and witnessing. We will categorically reject the result of the post-mortem conducted unilaterally excluding our attendance. They are colluding with the hostile forces towards us who are desperate to harm us of malice."

It's not clear who the "hostile forces" are, but they're assumed to be China or South Korea.

On Saturday, Malaysia's Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam responded to the North Korean ambassador:

"North Korea can reject or show disapproval. But we are doing things according to our law. Something happened in our country. We don't do it according to their law. If murder or death (occurs) in our country, there is a process we go through. There is no short cut in forensics as far as we are concerned. ...

We will release [the autopsy result] once it is ready, and hope to release it within this week. We are currently waiting for the toxicology report, which is an important test to confirm. Once it is done, the results will be given to the police as early as we can and it is up to the police to release it. We want to get correct results before releasing it."

It's very easy to get the feeling that both sides are hiding things, and that there's a lot more to come out.

The assassination of Kim Jong-nam has also further strained relations between China and North Korea, beyond the amount they were already strained by the long-range ballistic missile test.

Kim Jong-nam had been exiled from North Korea in 2001 after he was discovered using a phony passport. He's been living in Macau in China under Chinese protection. On Wednesday, he was at Kuala Lumpur airport preparing to fly back to Macau. If North Korea performed the assassination, it would be a new major humiliation to China.

China's state media Global Times published a story on Wednesday saying that "It is sincerely hoped that [North Korea] will step up and provide answers to a world that right now can only patiently wait." That story also criticized North Korea for using assassination at all:

"Regardless of how intense a country's political struggle might be, there is no doubt that it should never rely on assassination methods as means for its advancement. Human civilization is now in the 21st century, and such a savage and outdated political device should be cast into the museums of history."

This is an interesting point. Assassination is so old, so savage, so outdated, so twentieth-century. It's better to use more modern methods. If China doesn't like someone, they like to use more modern techniques -- kidnapping, and years of being thrown into a hole and starved, and receiving daily beatings and torture. For China in the 21st century, that's so much more thoroughly modern and stylish. AFP and The Star (Malaysia) and Global Times (China)

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(Comments: For reader comments, questions and discussion, see the 19-Feb-17 World View -- China announces it will block imports of North Korea's coal thread of the Generational Dynamics forum. Comments may be posted anonymously.) (19-Feb-2017) Permanent Link
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