sunset from behind the wire

sunset from behind the wire

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

War Drums?

North Korea

It's time to bring some clarity to recent events in regard sanctions against North Korea (the Norks) and their response.

The North Korean statement called the latest UN sanctions an act of war. On 24 December, the day after the UN Security Council approved more sanctions, a North Korean Foreign Ministry statement called them an act of war.

In the statement, published by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea accused the US of being terrified of its nuclear force. It said that the US was becoming “more and more frenzied in the moves to impose the harshest-ever sanctions and pressure on our country.”

The statement also said, “We will further consolidate our self-defensive nuclear deterrence aimed at fundamentally eradicating the US nuclear threats, blackmail and hostile moves by establishing the practical balance of force with the US.” 

“We define this ‘sanctions resolution’ rigged by the U.S. and its followers as a grave infringement upon the sovereignty of our republic and as an act of war violating peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula and the region.” The North also described the sanctions as amounting to an economic blockade.

The new sanctions include capping North Korean imports of refined oil products at 500,000 barrels per year, which elminates about 90 per cent of imports of refined oil products, and the repatriation of all North Korean workers from foreign countries within two years. 

The Security Council vote was 15 to 0, including China and Russia.

The oil sanctions sound worse than they are. North Korea only imports refined products that it cannot produce at its two refineries. They include specialty fuels, such as fuel for some of its fighter aircraft. The sanctions do not apply to imports of crude.

For most of its needs, North Korea has two refineries – one on each coast. For the west coast refinery, North Korea buys crude from China. The Ponghwa refinery was built by China and is connected by a pipeline to Dandong, China. The pipeline can supply up to one million tons of crude per year. 

China regularly has manipulated the flow of crude through the pipeline for a variety of reasons, including to show its displeasure with North Korean actions, but usually for non-payment of bills. 

No source has reported that China halted exports of crude via the pipeline during the current crisis. China is unlikely to cut off all crude supplies because that action would destabilize North Korea.

The Sungri refinery on the northeast coast is near the Russian border and is Russian-built, but is reported to be idle. It refines lighter varieties of crude that are supplied by ship. In the 1980s, Iran was the major source of crude for this refinery.

In the recent past, North Korea has relied on Russia as a source of crude for the Sungri refinery. The Russian arrangement often involved refining Russian crude for Russian use in the far east, but the Russians paid North Korea in kind for the refining operation. 

On both coasts. the North Koreans rely on smuggling in coastal tankers to obtain specialty refined products. 

The purpose of the sanctions on overseas workers is to cut off remittances of hard currency. However, the time period for workers to return is long enough to allow projects to be completed or for the workers to arrange a change in their status in their host countries in order to comply with the sanctions.

North Korean propagandists are overusing the act of war language. Allied exercises, US presidential tweets, sanctions, destroying a North Korean missile in flight and insults to the dignity of Kim Jong Un have all been called acts of war. 

The statement about further consolidating the nuclear deterrent is a contrived and phony threat. That is what North Korea planned on doing in any event and has said so on multiple other occasions. It is not a response to UN action.

China

There are reports of crisis preparations on the North Korean border. A Japanese news service reported on 24 December that China has been building refugee camps to accommodate up to 500,000 refugees on the North Korean border.

The news service reported that last summer the government in Beijing instructed the northeastern provinces, including Jilin and Liaoning, to start preparing camps that could absorb an influx of displaced North Koreans, according to Chinese Communist Party officials. The sources said multiple planned facilities would have an estimated capacity of up to 500,000 people. Stockpiling of food and tents also has been reported. 

According to the Japanese report, a Chinese telecommunications company checked the status of communications to five locations in Changbai Korean Autonomous County, Jilin Province on 2 December, where authorities plan to build refugee camps. The Chinese also reportedly are building more military barracks to house an increase in forces on the border.

Officially, the construction is intended to counter a growing number of thefts by North Koreans who slip across the frozen border river during the winter. 

I have been watching carefully for additional signs of precautionary preparations for war in northeast China since 6 December when officials in Jilin published public guidance on nuclear war.

This is the third set of reports about Chinese preparations for a major crisis, or war, in North Korea. They remain unconfirmed, but they are consistent in thrust and detail and the stream of reporting has continued. To echo the judgment of one of the press reporters, the Chinese continue to advocate negotiations to reduce tension, but are preparing for the worst.

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Regional Update

China-Afghanistan-Pakistan

The Chinese, Afghan and Pakistani foreign ministers who met in Beijing released a joint statement. I will spare you the rhetoric for the most part and cut to the chase.

The three parties reaffirmed their commitment to improving their relations, deepening mutually beneficial cooperation, advancing connectivity under the Belt and Road Initiative, and fighting terrorism in all its forms and manifestation without any distinction. The three Foreign Ministers agreed to jointly work together on political mutual trust and reconciliation, development cooperation and connectivity, security cooperation and counter-terrorism as three topics of the trilateral cooperation.

The most important outcomes are China has offered to bring Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative and the three neighbors have agreed to develop a memo of understanding on counter-terrorism cooperation.

Looking beyond the diplomatic language, membership in the Belt and Road Initiative and the agreement to conduct trilateral economic cooperation impose significant burdens on host governments to improve security for any projects that China is willing to finance and build. The price of Chinese infrastructure investment is a major commitment by the host government to dedicate competent security forces so that the projects stay on budget and on time. 

China has suspended three major road projects in Pakistan for security shortcomings. Chinese “carrot and stick” management practices stand a reasonable chance of coercing the Afghan and Pakistani governments to improve the security situation along the common border, for economic, vice political, reasons.

The memorandum of understanding is potentially important because it implies a possibility that the three might reach agreement on who are the terrorists. At the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) summit meeting in Xiamen in September, the five heads of government criticized Pakistan for supporting jihadist groups. 

Pakistan rejected the criticism because the groups it supports are “freedom fighters” or receive no direct support from the Pakistani government. Afghanistan also supports anti-Pakistani terrorist groups. The policies of both countries are obstacles to the success of the Belt and Road projects in their countries. 

The Chinese approach is innovative and has not been tried. It might not work. Nevertheless, China has inserted itself into Afghan-Pakistani security matters in an unprecedented fashion. Under President Xi, the longstanding Chinese policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of states has been reinterpreted in order to facilitate the Belt and Road Initiative

For Afghanistan and Pakistan, Chinese leaders appear to have decided that it is time for them to clean up security conditions so China can stick to its long term development plans.

Afghanistan

Another attack against the National Directorate of Security. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on Monday, 25 December, on a compound of the national intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security in Kabul. At least 10 people died and two were wounded in the attack.

This is the second Islamic State attack in 10 days that targeted the National Directorate of Security (NDS) in Kabul. On 16 December, the Islamic State also attacked an NDS training facility in Kabul.

The Taliban also were active during the weekend, executing attacks in Kandahar, Ghazni and Nangarhar Provinces. 

Both groups seem determined to close out the year with demonstrations of their strength. In the past several months, the Islamic State has been responsible for most attacks in Kabul. An increase in the frequency of attacks would indicate a significant improvement in Islamic State access, support and capabilities in the capital. 

Syria

Russia says that Assad stays. On 23 December, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it is preparing the list of participants to attend the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi in late January. 

The Syrian opposition rejected the invitation. At least 40 Syrian opposition groups refused to participate in the Congress in Sochi. They accused Moscow of seeking to circumvent the United Nations peace process in Geneva and of committing war crimes in Syria.

The opposition statement accused Moscow of not putting enough pressure on the Syrian government to reach a political solution and of not making “a single step” towards alleviating the suffering of Syrians. The statement said the lack of humanitarian support is a guarantee that the Russians are not moving in any real path to finding a solution.

The statement described Russia as an enemy state that supports and defends the policies of a military regime and prevented the United Nations from condemning Assad’s government for seven years.

Hundreds of opposition groups are being invited to the Congress. The Russians seem to have a “take it or leave it” approach to participation in the Congress by the 40 opposition groups who declined to attend. Groups that refuse to participate automatically identify themselves as targets for future operations by the Syrians, their allies and the Russians.