Pirates or Hawks: Who Hijacked the Chinese Fishing Boats?

25 05 2012

(Leonid Petrov, The University of Sydney) China often describes its relations with North Korea, its closest regional ally, as intimate but not substantial. For more than half a century, Beijing’s attitude towards the Korean peninsula has revolved around the avoidance of three scenarios: ‘No new war on the Korean peninsula’; ‘No regime change in North Korea’, and ‘No American troops on the Sino-Korean border’. But can the developments of recent weeks shake this strategic alliance tested by time, wars and revolutions?

This year North Korea declared that it has reached its self-professed goal of becoming a strong and affluent state. However, the state of its cross-border trade and cooperation with China indicates otherwise. There are signs that inside North Korea’s closed borders the domestic situation in the DPRK is deteriorating and the regime is using every opportunity to use government agencies to earn the desperately needed cash and goods.

A range of UN sanctions have been imposed on North Korea. In response to two nuclear tests and recent ballistic missile launches, a ban on luxury goods has been imposed on North Korea by the UN Security Council. The country is now hard at work, evading these bans, with the help of China. Almost all imports of luxury goods (cigarettes, cosmetics, cars, watches and computers) go to North Korea via China. The criminalisation of border trade with North Korea is notorious within China, whose government does not officially recognise the contraband goods to qualify as ‘luxury items’. This ambiguity often creates situations replete with potentials for border conflicts between the former communist allies.

One incident unfolded in the Yellow (West) Sea on 8 May 2012, where three Chinese fishing boats, with 29 Chinese fishermen onboard. They were abducted by unidentified and armed North Koreans, who demanded the payment of ransom for their return. The vessels were seized in a traditional Chinese fishing area, about 10 nautical miles from the maritime boundary between the two countries. Seven Chinese boats were initially taken; four were later returned to the port of Dandong in return for ransom. Three Chinese boats remained in the hands of the unnamed North Korean kidnappers for another 13 days.

While these kinds of incidents are common, this one developed in an unusual way. As a rule, Chinese ships owners pay the ransom through private channels. There are many individuals and even companies involved in such cases and, on many occasions, they are well connected to DPRK marine forces. This time, however, the armed hijackers approached the Chinese fishing vessels on a speed boat. They wore blue hats and uniforms and some of them spoke perfect Mandarin. They initially demanded the payment of 400,000 Yuan (AU$65,000) for each boat, but later lowered their request and threatened to ‘dispose’ of the boats if the money was not sent through within a short deadline. The demand was transmitted by satellite phones through the crew members, who were kept in captivity on shore without food and were reportedly subjected to beatings.

The fact that the captors gave the kidnapped sailors the mobile number of an intermediary in the border town of Dandong to discuss how to send the ransom suggests that the captors were international group of pirates. For some ten days the Chinese government worked closely with the North Korean maritime authorities, to ensure the safety of the Chinese citizens. Pyongyang, however, has still not commented on the incident. While the nature of this incident remains unclear, it came after Beijing criticised a recent North Korean rocket launch and expressed concern over another nuclear weapons test planned by Pyongyang. This raises a very serious question: Were the hijackers real pirates or was this in fact all a carefully planned retaliation, by the DPRK government, against China?

The North Korean defectors who are familiar with the chain of command in maritime border protection assert that the three Chinese fishing boats were seized by operatives of DPRK General Bureau of Reconnaissance. They usually use armed speed boats which belong to West Sea Base No. 2 located in Nampo and secretly enter international waters to fulfil special missions. Their speedboats are disguised as mid-size fishing vessels but equipped with four Russian made M-400 engines. The General Bureau maritime bases also conduct infiltration missions against South Korea and exist both in the East and West Sea.

The initial reports of the attack testified that the group of captors was wearing blue uniforms and hats and included several Chinese-speaking people. However, the involvement in this particular incident of Chinese criminals is unlikely. The staff members of General Bureau of Reconnaissance are fluent in Mandarin because they are trained to operate in Chinese waters. For example, the operatives stationed at East Sea Base No.1 are required to speak excellent Japanese.

Could the General Bureau of Reconnaissance suddenly decide upon the capture of Chinese fishing boats simply to earn money? Capturing foreign nationals and their property would inevitably create a diplomatic problem and could not be done without the approval of authorities. Discipline in North Korean military is stern and hierarchy is thoroughly observed. While scheming with the authorities to demand money from the captured Chinese sailors, they must have intended to express discontent at something else. What message did the North Korean authorities want to convey to Beijing?

The moist likely scenario was that the abduction of Chinese fishermen was carefully planned by the new leadership in Pyongyang in retaliation for China’s continuing criticism of the North Korea’s April rocket launch and ongoing preparations for another nuclear test. In addition, Beijing recently permitted a number of North Korean defectors to leave China to seek asylum in South Korea that could not but anger the DPRK leaders who wanted to teach China a lesson.

The timing of the incident (8-21 May) also supports this hypothesis. It coincided with the joint US-ROK aerial exercises Thunder Max, which was held between the 7th and 18th May. While these exercises take place on an annual basis, this year’s activities were of a particularly massive scale. These war games in the skies of south-western Korea not only send a warning message to the DPRK but also to China, serving to further strengthen the security cooperation between Beijing and Pyongyang. Paradoxically, joint US-ROK military exercises equip North Korea with extra leverage over China.

Beijing, however, is refusing to link the dots. So far the Chinese Foreign Ministry is labelling the incident a ‘fisheries case’ and searching for the traces of criminal gangs in Dandong. Clearly, Beijing is trying to soft-pedal the incident and avoid open antagonism with its long-term regional ally. All signs indicate that this incident will not negatively affect the strong political ties between the two countries. In the situation where the Chinese government at all costs prefers to maintain the status quo on the Korean peninsula, such a minor incident will not force Beijing to stop supporting the DPRK, a buffer state which separates its own borders from the US-allied South Korea.

After all, the Cold War in the region is continuing, Northeast Asia remains divided and paranoid, and its main front line still divides the Korean peninsula.

See the Korean version of this text here…  해적이거나 호커스이거나

This article was also published by EAF as “North Korea, China and the abducted Chinese fishing boats”

and by The Korea Herald as “Pirates or hawks: who hijacked Chinese boats?”

Northeast Asia – a Region without Regionalism

20 05 2012

(Leonid Petrov for East Asia Forum, 23 May 2012)

Last week once again demonstrated to the world the sad truth about the inability of Northeast Asian nations to establish good working relations in political and economic spheres. The ambitious plan to build a Free Trade Zone across China, South Korea and Japan was pompously declared, only to stumble over old unresolved issues. The legacies of colonialism, international wars and civil conflicts persist, thwarting any attempts to rebuild trust and achieve multilateral cooperation.

The creation of a network of FTAs between the neighbouring states could serve as a confidence building mechanism toward deepening regional integration in East Asia, but efforts have been lagging. Japan and China have yet to enter talks for a bilateral FTA. South Korea and Japan suspended negotiations for a bilateral FTA in 2004 and have made little progress since. This year Seoul has agreed with Beijing to start negotiations for a bilateral FTA, and the first session took place in Beijing on 14 May.

The trade ministers of South Korea, Japan and China for the first time agreed to launch negotiations for a three-way FTA by the end of this year. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met in Beijing with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda for annual summit talks, where they discussed the future of tripartite economic cooperation. The three leaders shared the view that a trilateral FTA would boost trade and investment among the three countries and provide a framework for comprehensive and structural cooperation.

But at the press-conference after the summit, South Korean President Lee looked less enthusiastic than his Chinese and Japanese counterparts. Lee said the trilateral FTA would be meaningful to the countries’ future, but avoided answers regarding the possibility of concluding the FTA negotiations within two years. Also further undermining confidence among the three countries, Chinese President Hu Jintao refused to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda without any explanation. Speculators have suggested Hu’s cancelation may have been triggered by the heated debate on May 13 between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Noda over the sovereignty of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, or Japan’s granting of a visa to Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer to run the World Uyghur Congress in Tokyo.

The three leaders also discussed the continuing North Korean provocations, but the absence of North Korea in these negotiations was conspicuous. A successful regional FTA could allow products produced in North Korea to be freely sold in South Korea and Japan, helping its flagging economy. Similarly, the lack of consumer goods in North Korea could be rectified by an influx of quality products from South Korea and Japan. But for ideological reasons this opportunity remains closed for North Korea.

It is no coincidence that just days prior to the trilateral summit in Beijing, the President of North Korea’s Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong-nam, went for his first foreign trip since the death of Kim Jong-il. But rather than heading to China, he went to Southeast Asia where he met with the President of Singapore, Tony Tan, and the city-state’s parliamentary leader Michael Palmer. Kim Yong-nam was accompanied by Ri Kwang-gun, who heads the Joint Venture and Investment Commission, and An Jong-su the Minister of Light Industry. Obviously, North Korea is trying to attract foreign investment by offering itself to manufacturers interested in cheap labour, and to boost exports of its own consumer products and minerals. In Singapore the leaders discussed a variety of issues, including the situation on the Korean Peninsula and bilateral relations, but President Tan and Mr Palmer stressed that while Singapore was open to advancing bilateral relations with North Korea, they were constrained by the fact that North Korea remains subject to UN Security Council sanctions.

The following day, Kim Yong-nam flew to Indonesia, where he also drummed up support for foreign investment. Most western multinational companies avoid direct business with North Korea because of US trade embargo. Washington has warned financial institutions in Southeast Asia that they should not do business with North Korea. Banks in Macao and Singapore stopped doing business with North Korea several years ago. Given this backdrop, what is the reaction of Indonesia to such pressure?

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called for dialogue to resolve problems on the Korean peninsula, while Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa suggested that isolating North Korea further was not a constructive solution. When discussing the issue of the controversial rocket-satellite launch, Yudhoyono underlined that misunderstandings should be avoided through dialogue and communication. Kim Yong-nam was assured that there are areas where cooperation is possible. For example, the two leaders resolved to raise bilateral political relations by promoting visits by officials, ministers, managers, and media professionals of the two countries. The media swap deal will allow networks in both North Korea and Indonesia to share content and participate in journalist exchanges.

North Korea is clearly trying to curb its excessive reliance on China by reaching out to other countries in Asia. But how many countries can or will help North Korea integrate successfully? Why should North Korea look for partnerships away from its own region? Would not it be more logical to improve relations with its immediate neighbours, namely South Korea and Japan? Is the US or Russia willing to see the three countries building a genuine free trade platform in the region? The combined population of the three major Asian powers is around 1.5 billion people, with an aggregate GDP of US$15 trillion or 20 per cent of the world total. The establishment of a multilateral FTA would definitely help lay a foundation not only for strong economic partnership, but also for trust, reconciliation, and reliable peace in the region.

But developments over the last week have shown once again that domestic affairs appear to carry more weight for national leaders than regional projects. The disputes of the 20th century continue to affect the hearts and minds of politicians in the two Koreas, China and Japan. And it may take longer than expected before regionalism in Northeast Asia will prevail over political mistrust and economic protectionism.

See the Korean version of this article here…  동북아시아- 지역주의 없는 지역

Also published by The Korea Times (23.05.2012)

Like Father, Like Son

14 05 2012

(James Giggacher’s inteview with Leonid Petrov, ANU Reporter, May 2012)

On a frosty winter’s day in December last year North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il breathed his last breath. Steely, yet teary-eyed reporters from the country’s official news agency told the world the 69-year-old had “passed away from great mental and physical strain”. Later reports would reveal that the Dear Leader was travelling to the country’s north on his armoured train when he reached the end of the line; a massive heart attack the cause of death.

But, Dr Leonid Petrov, a research associate in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, has a slightly different take on this version of events. The analyst, who has been watching North Korea closely for decades, says that Kim Jong-il, whose health had been on the rails for a while, suicided.

“Why did Kim Jong-il suddenly die in December just a few weeks before 2012,” Petrov asks. “It was because it was very convenient and almost the perfect time for him to die. He surely understood that and had carefully prepared the country for a smooth power transition. That’s why I think he committed suicide.

“2012 is a significant and pivotal year in North Korean history. It is the centennial anniversary of the birthday of the country’s first leader and Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung. It is also the year when Kim Jong-il promised to take North Korea to self-proclaimed strength and prosperity. Obviously, North Korea is not very strong, except militarily. And it is very far away from prosperity.

“Clearly, Kim Jong-il did not deliver on his promise. He felt ashamed, he felt pity for his people and he felt he was getting weaker. He had already appointed his successor, his third son Kim Jong-un and he felt his job was done – he did not need to do anything else. So, Kim Jong-il takes cyanide and dies instantly of a heart attack without any pain.”

Petrov also points to the inconsistency in the story about the leader’s whereabouts at the time of his death as another reason why official reports cannot be trusted. According to him, Kim Jong-il’s armoured train never left Pyongyang.

“At the moment we still don’t know what exactly happened. North Korean propaganda says Kim Jong-il was visiting a province in the north of the country, inspecting military bases, but satellite images show that his armoured train never left Pyongyang during the week he died. So obviously he was in Pyongyang at the time of his death. He didn’t plan to go anywhere.”

Regardless of whether Kim Jong-il’s death was natural or not, Petrov is certain of one thing; his son is safe at the top and is in no immediate danger of flat lining anytime soon – even if there were recent reports of his assassination in China.

“No way are the assassination rumours true,” says Petrov. “If the rumours said that he was killed in North Korea, well maybe. But, assassinated in China? No. As soon as they said China I knew it was not true. He didn’t plan any trips to China, he didn’t cross the border. Every time the North Korean leader travels the security precautions are extraordinary. There is no way.

“What happened immediately after Kim Jong-il’s death was all planned out and very well-orchestrated. Kim Jong-un was immediately catapulted to the driving seat and was made chairman of his father’s funeral committee. He was out meeting the people, and playing the role of a populist, providing free fish to everyone, just like Jesus Christ when he fed fish to the poor. He also allowed the military to visit and pay homage to him and was seen crying in public. It was planned and scheduled and the immediate transition was very smooth.”

Despite his youth and relatively obscurity – at least in the West – Petrov adds that there is no doubt that Kim Jong-un is North Korea’s number one man.

“Kim Jong-un is young and seniority is respected in North Korea, which means that for the moment he has to follow the advice of his seniors – the older members of his family and senior military and party officials. In Korean history, regents were often appointed to help a young king fulfil his duties. Similarly, Kim Jong-un can’t make decisions by himself. However, this doesn’t mean that he’s a puppet, not at all.

“Kim Jong-un is the successor; he is of the imperial blood and he’s widely recognised as such. He’s eulogised and worshipped as the generalissimo by the military, as a member of the revolutionary dynasty by the members of the communist party and as the token of stability by the members of the Kim family. So everyone really has great hopes for him.  And, now that he is in power I think that Kim Jong-un will stay in power for a very long time.”

Something else that will continue for a very long time is the tightly controlled nature of existence in North Korea. Beyond the pantomime of public grief and loss, the leadership succession represents a scratched record playing the same old sad tune of repression, poverty and isolation from the rest of the world for the North Korean people. The succession was not only an elaborately thought-out and smoothly executed transition from one generation of the ruling Kim family to the next; it was designed to maintain as much stability in the country as possible. Kim Jong-un, who according to Petrov “even looks like his grandfather Kim Il-sung”, is the past made present in order to lead North Korea into a future that looks depressingly familiar.

“The whole point of Kim Jong-un’s succession was to avoid any change in North Korea, because change, threatens the very existence of the North Korean state. If you look at what happened to the Soviet Union when Gorbachev started Perestroika (or opening up to the West), he couldn’t control the situation. He lost power and the country collapsed and disintegrated. North Korea would implode if they started playing with any sort of change or reform, economic or political.

“And so the elites in North Korea say ‘no thanks’ to any idea of change. The idea is to maintain stability and continue what Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il had been doing during the last half a century. Stability and continuity are the key issue.”

Ultimately, by stability and continuity, Petrov means dynastic endurance and the ongoing rule of the Kim family. “We should look at North Korea as a hereditary dynasty in a kingdom which is the personal property of the Kim dynasty,” he says. “This dynasty is supported by the army and the communist party, particularly the top level of the army and the party who lead comfortable lives with lots of freedoms and privileges. They have a lot to lose if a change of regime happens and there is a lot more to lose than in countries like Libya and Syria. There’s a lot more at stake; the national integrity of the country is at stake because just next door is a strong, prosperous, affluent South Korea, which will not forego the opportunity of absorbing North Korea in the case of some disturbance, chaos or economic collapse.

“The reason for North Korea actually existing is the survival of the regime and the survival of the Kim dynasty.  It’s constantly announced to the people that without the supreme leader Kim there is no Fatherland-. Without the party we can’t survive. Without the army we’d be enslaved.

“So survival is what drives the existence of the state and justifies the control of the Kim family. And survival doesn’t have to mean prosperity. North Korea is a poor state and for the last 60 years, since the Korean War, the people have been living in very harsh conditions. But, as long as they have some food and some electricity and a little bit of freedom – to be able to move from one province to another to visit relatives or to trade – we can expect no major change.

“No major protests will occur either. There is simply no room for opposition. There are no alternative sources of information, there’s no space for thinking about freedom or revolution of any kind like the Arab Spring. So, everything will stay the same as long as the leadership decides to keep things the same. Kim Jong-un was chosen as a token of continuity and stability, so don’t expect change from him. As long as he decides to stay, to keep the country secluded, closed, poor, intimidated, it will continue as it always has.

“North Korea is a revolutionary state frozen in time and will remain frozen. The people are not exposed to any foreign influences, they have nothing to compare life to; they just have to trust in what their leaders tell them, and their leaders tell them don’t expect any change.

“It’s a very sad story.”

See the Korean version of this article here…  그 아버지에, 그 아들