(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?”