Hu you gonna to call? Pyongyang gets Chinese advice on Bill Clinton

August 9, 2009
East-Asia Intelligence

Sometime in the last days of July, Kim Jong Il had nailed down former U.S. President Bill Clinton's scheduled arrival in Pyongyang to petition "Dear Leader" for the pardon of imprisoned U.S. journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling. That was when the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee must have decided to send the Party's Central Propaganda Department Senior Vice Minister, Luo Shugang, to North Korea for five days of in-depth consultations with the "Dear Leader" and top Korean Workers Party counterparts.
Although the North Koreans announced the Chinese propagandists' visit on Monday, August 3, Beijing clearly did not want to call much attention to the delegation while Clinton was in North Korea, Tuesday and Wednesday, August 4,5. Vice Minister Luo's s travel was not reported in the People's Daily until August 7. But still, once Clinton's visit was over, People's Daily's 3-4 million readers learned that Chinese President Hu Jintao and North Korea's dictator Kim "valued highly and devoted special care" to cultivating their relationship. Vice Minister Luo stressed in Pyongyang that "the ceaseless consolidation and development of cooperative China-[North] Korean relations was the consistent principle of the Chinese Communist Party and Government."
It is unlikely that Chinese delegation's presence in Pyongyang during the Clinton visit was coincidence. August is has never been a great month for Chinese delegations in North Korea. Senior Chinese Communist propaganda officials generally devote their Augusts to preparations for traditional Party leadership meetings that take place at the end of the month rather than junkets abroad.
Nor was the Clinton visit to Pyongyang just a propaganda department interest. Accompanying the high-powered Chinese propaganda mission was a delegation of Chinese intelligence analysts from the Ministry of State Security's "Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations" (CICIR), led by Institute Vice President Tao Jian, in Pyongyang to consult with their Korean counterparts (KCNA, August 3).
And who knows how many other Chinese delegations were also in Pyongyang sharing North Korean hospitality with the former U.S. leader? At least seven separate groups from China's central government, provinces, municipalities and cultural organizations also mysteriously materialized in North Korea – and those were just the ones that the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported. (KCNA, August 1 and August 4) Any other more discreet Chinese visitors seeking to maintain anonymity were easily lost in the crowds of Chinese-speaking visitors shuttling about North Korea's capital unbeknownst to the Americans.
In fact, early August saw the single largest influx of Chinese government and party visitors to Pyongyang thus far in the 2009 "Year of Chinese-Korean Friendship" – and perhaps the most ever Chinese delegations to North Korea in a single week. In their speeches and ceremonies, all the delegations from the People's Republic extolled the bilateral relationship and promised to build on the age-old friendship that was launched by Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung and "nurtured" by Hu Jintao and Kim Jong Il.
If one only read Chinese or Korean newspapers, one would think that ties between Beijing and Pyongyang couldn't be warmer. And one would probably be right.
All of this should be seen against the backdrop of late July news that Beijing had finally caved-in to American demands to torque-up the pressure on Pyongyang. North Korea's second nuclear weapons test on May 25 prompted the United Nations Security Council to pass new sanctions against Pyongyang, but China had insisted that any attempts to interdict North Korean shipping be first approved by North Korea. Washington caved-in on that, and China let the resolution through. Nonetheless, the Chinese clarified that the Resolution was "not all about sanctions" and pressured the U.S. to refrain from any actions that would exacerbate the situation. On July 30, after closed meeting of the U.N. Security Council's sanctions committee on North Korea, U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg told reporters that the Security Council had "a unity of view, a singleness of purpose in implementing these (sanctions) resolutions," emphasizing "that's the case, certainly, with our Chinese partners."
Goldberg pointed hopefully to wire service reports that China had halted its investment in a North Korean copper mining venture and that Chinese Customs had seized a shipment of smuggled "vanadium" metal at the North Korean border.
Yet, it is difficult to say what those events meant. Were they real incidents? Or were they Beijing's wink-wink-nudge-nudge to Washington targeted on getting the Americans to ease up? For, while a South Korean press report noted that China's state-owned Zhongkuang International Investment Company had abruptly halted a North Korean copper mining project ( July 30), it may not have occurred at all. The mining venture in North Korea was apparently the only major project undertaken by "Sino-Mining International Investment Company, Ltd." (Zhongkuang) and it still appears to be the centerpiece of Zhongkuang's internet home-page ( accessed August 12).
The South Korean press also drew attention to an interrupted "vanadium" shipment to North Korea ( July 29) as evidence that China was enforcing United Nations sanctions on North Korea. Yet, the seizure was not publicized in China's general news media. On July 28, the official website for China's customs service in the border city of Dalian ( posted a short report with several images of customs officials examining specimen jars filled with gray metallic shavings. That report was repeated in several Chinese metals industry websites.
But reports of the incident that appeared in the Dalian Customs Website and "China Nonferrous Metals Net" (Youse Jinshu Wang) made no mention of North Korea at all. The incident had other anomalies that put a peculiar cast on the idea that it was a Chinese sanctions enforcement event. No arrests were made in the Dalian case. The Dalian Customs web site report indicated that as soon as the shipment was identified as vanadium, they issued a "hazard warning" (fengxian kongbu) indicating that they felt vanadium was environmentally toxic. Dalian customs said the matter had been turned over to "smuggling units" (zousi bumen) for "further processing."
There are no international prohibitions on the trade of vanadium, a minor metal used to strengthen steel alloys and in advanced electric battery production. Vanadium is not listed on any annex of controlled items for North Korea. Indeed, North Korea's main exports to China, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, are coal for smelting, iron ore, zinc, lead and magnesite, "all essential for making lightweight metals for electronics" (The Washington Post, June 26). It would be very odd if Beijing adopted restrictive minerals trade policies toward Pyongyang when minerals seem to be the focus of Sino-North Korean trade. In short, the "vanadium" incident clearly was not an instance of Chinese trade sanctions on North Korea.
Indeed, there is still, in late 2009, every evidence that China and North Korea retain a very special mercantile relationship that mirrors their political and military relationship. While China's overall imports dropped 13.2% in 2009, total imports from North Korea for 2009 were up nearly 12% according to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (see; and In fact, a month after North Korea's second nuclear test, a Washington Post had to admit that "China Trade Helps Shield N. Korea; Cash Aids Military, May Offset Sanctions." (, June 26).
Nor has China confined itself, since the second nuclear test, to aiding North Korea's above-board and legal trade. In June, South Korean intelligence agencies gave the United States a list of South Korea gave the U.S. information about "some 10 to 20 North Korean bank accounts in China and Switzerland" used for "counterfeiting, money laundering and other illegal transactions" (Associated Press, June 10). Chinese entities, it seems, were complicit in North Korea's attempt, in violation of U.N. sanctions, to procure for "Dear Leader" two luxury yachts under construction at a shipyard in the Italian city of Viareggio – the money for which was transferred to Austria via China, and the titles for which were in the name of a Chinese company (, July 16).
North Korea's international shipping agencies still cooperate quite closely with Chinese counterparties. A North Korean cargo ship that furtively appeared in waters off India's Andaman Islands in early August 2009, was forcefully boarded by Indian customs officials who discovered that the ship, MV Mu San, "had made several voyages between North Korea and China without maintaining proper record" (Times of India, August 9).
To be sure, a North Korea policy debate among Chinese scholars took place in the popular (albeit state-controlled) media in early July. A director of the China Association for International Exchange, Cao Shigong, published a lengthy article on page 14 of Beijing's Global Times (Huanqiu Shibao, July 1) suggesting that the time would soon come for a "key change" (biandiao – i.e. a subtle rather than substantive adjustment) in China's Korea policy.
Yet, one month later, Mr. Cao's views were soundly thrashed in a full front-page article in Global Times (August 3) with headlines – visible at 100 yards from any newsstand – that read: "China Refuses to Conspire Against North Korea."

Chinese military expert Dai Xu told Global Times that the United States was attempting to lure China into a "conspiracy" to plan for North Korea's "collapse" (the latest request to conspire had come during the July 2 visit to Beijing of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg) but that “the stability of North Korea conforms with China’s national interest”. China, declared Mr. Dai in Global Times' front page message to Washington, would not sacrifice its ally.

The Global Times also cited Yu Wanli, an associate professor at the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Beijing University in Beijing, as stating frankly that "China and the US are not on the same page on this matter" and that the Americans were “exaggerating” Pyongyang's weakness. “China will never let the collapse of North Korea happen,” asserted Mr. Yu. Of course, these were the views of academics, but their prominence in the banner headlines of Global Times, the Communist Party Central Propaganda Department's national organ for the dissemination of foreign news, suggests they were authoritative.
Indeed, they appeared the very day Chinese propaganda boss Lu Shuguang arrived in Pyongyang – and the day before "Dear Leader" so graciously granted his special pardon to the American journalists as requested by President Clinton. North Korean propagandists – perhaps at the recommendation of Chinese experts – marked the occasion on with an eye-catching front-page photo montage in the country's major newspaper of "Dear Leader" and Clinton "discussing issues of common concern" (Rodong Shinmun, August 5). North Korea's state-media noted with pleasure that Clinton had "courteously conveyed a verbal message of U.S. President Barack Obama to Kim Jong Il" (KCNA, August 4) and "expressed words of sincere apology to Kim Jong Il for the hostile acts committed by the two American journalists" (KCNA August 5). True or not, The Wall Street Journal reported the visit as a priceless propaganda coup for Pyongyang (Wall Street Journal, August 6).
The Chinese Communist Party's own People's Daily – run, of course, by the Party's Central Propaganda Department – covered the Clinton visit in a major half-page article which also highlighted President Obama's putative "verbal message" to North Korea's "Dear Leader." On the same page was a Xinhua wire-service story headlined "'US Speeds Research in 'SUPER BOMB'" that failed to note the American Congress's disinclination to fund the project. Clearly, the Chinese propaganda department sees little fairness in America's complaints about North Korean nuclear weapons if America is accelerating its own nuclear weapons development. (On August 17, China's newspaper for foreign news, Global Times, reported approvingly of North Korea's new negotiating tactic with the U.S. to "exchange nukes for nukes.")
On Sunday, August 10, Bill Clinton's visit to Pyongyang took on an even deeper propaganda significance for "Dear Leader" after White House National Security Advisor, General James Jones, reported to the world that "Kim Jong-il is in full control of his organization, his government . . . he certainly is — he certainly appears to still be the one who's in charge" (FoxNews Sunday, August 10). The North Korean leader must now be satisfied that, in Washington's eyes, North Korea is nowhere near the brink of political chaos.
As of mid-August 2009, promoting the "Year of Chinese-North Korean Friendship" appears to be a far more urgent priority in Beijing than cooperating with the United States "to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula." But China's propaganda arms have not been lax in disseminating rumors and innuendo to the contrary.


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