China Frustrates U.S. by Violating Sanctions on North Korea

Courtesy of the United Nations
A photo released in a U.N. report in March shows North Korean vessels smuggling coal near Jiangsu Province, China.

WASHINGTON/BEIJING — China seems to have judged that there is no advantage in cooperating with the United States on the North Korean issue, leading Beijing to continuously violate U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.

The U.S. Treasury Department announced Dec. 8 sanctions on six entities, including shipping companies in China and Vietnam, and four vessels for engaging in transportation of North Korean coal in violation of U.N. sanctions resolutions. The Chinese shipping company’s vessels were alleged to have loaded coal at North Korean ports and transported them to Vietnam.

Washington is growing frustrated with Beijing’s repeated violations and increasingly blatant methods. In The Wall Street Journal’s online edition on Dec. 7, a senior U.S. State Department official was quoted as saying, “It is not particularly disguised or hidden,” referring to China’s smuggling of North Korean coal and other products.

Based on satellite photos provided by the U.S. government, the article also states that in August this year, several coal vessels flying the North Korean flag transshipped coal onto Chinese vessels at sea near Ningbo in China’s Zhejiang Province.

“In the past year, on 555 separate occasions, we have observed ships carrying U.N.-prohibited coal or other sanctioned goods from North Korea to China,” said Alex Wong, the U.S. State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for North Korea, in a speech on Dec. 1.

He criticized China, saying, “They are seeking to undo the U.N. sanctions regime they themselves voted for.”

According to traders between China and North Korea, the Chinese authorities were strictly controlling smuggling activities when total embargo on North Korean coal was imposed in 2017, with a case of Chinese vessels seized at a port in Dalian in China’s Liaoning Province. But the traders say recently surveillance of vessels at ports and sea has loosened.

It has been suggested that China’s tacit approval of sanction violations is based on Beijing’s judgment that it is unnecessary to cooperate with the U.S. on North Korean issues after confrontation with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump became definitive, with issues including the novel coronavirus.

Fearing that North Korea’s economic woes could shake the Kim Jong Un regime, China may be effectively supporting Pyongyang’s foreign currency earnings.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, who will assume the presidency in January, plans to deal with the North Korean nuclear and missile issues through building up working-level negotiations. The success or failure of the negotiations is thought to partly depend on whether the U.S. can maintain the coalition against North Korea, with China’s cooperation.

The incoming Biden administration is already faced with the challenge of countering China, which is trying to exert its influence on North Korean issues.