China can’t go wobblyA meeting between South and North Korea on Thursday discussed escorts, protocol and media affairs ahead of the April 27 inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom. We welcome it as it helps clear dark clouds over the Korean Peninsula. But no agreement was made on the critical issue of denuclearizing North Korea, which means we have a long way to go. But some signs of schisms in international sanctions are causing concerns. China seems to be easing sanctions after President Xi Jinping’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in March.
News reports say that several Chinese companies stopped repatriating North Korean workers from border cities including Dandong, Liaoning province. UN Resolution 2397, which was adopted last December, stipulates that North Korean laborers working in foreign countries be repatriated within 24 months. China had been following the guideline, but suddenly halted sending them back. Instead, it is reportedly stepping up efforts to arrest North Korean defectors for deportation.
A news report even claimed that 400 female North Korean workers had been dispatched to Helong city, Jilin province, earlier this month. If that is true, it’s a clear violation of UN Resolution 2375, which strictly bans issuance of new work permits to North Korean workers overseas. China underscores its duty to follow the UN guidelines. But it is a country in which leaders’ gestures greatly affect their subordinates. For instance, the smiles of Xi and Kim at their recent summit might have encouraged provincial government officials and merchants to accept North Korean workers.
The Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s state mouthpiece, declared, “Our leadership led us to grab the most powerful steering wheel” on peninsular issues. North Korea believes the situation is moving as it wishes. But the rogue state returned to the negotiating table because of international pressure and the possibility of military action by the United States. Moreover, China has contributed a lot to the sanctions thanks to its determination to not approve of the North’s possession of nuclear weapons.
China must not go wobbly on the sanctions front. We understand its need to use a North Korea card in fear of being isolated from the negotiation process and in the face of Washington’s mounting trade pressure. But the denuclearization of North Korea involves not only the peninsula, but also China and other parts of East Asia. If the negotiations fail, it could trigger a nuclear domino effect in Asia, which China will regret most.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 6, Page 30