North Korea: Sensitive Negotiation Backchannels

Published on December 6, 2017
United Nations Political Affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman embarked quietly on a four-day visit to North Korea on Tuesday, stopping first in Beijing on his way to meetings with senior North Korean officials, including Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho.
*** It is noteworthy that the trip was in response to requests since September by the DPRK for a meeting. Beyond the fact that this will be the first trip made to North Korea by a senior UN official since October of 2011, we believe the choice of Feltman, who played an instrumental backchannel role during nuclear negotiations with Iran, as envoy to Pyongyang is also significant in and of itself. ***
*** That trip follows a personal call placed by President Donald Trump to President Xi Jinping of China the day after North Korea’s launch of its Hwasong-15 missile two weeks ago, a call that was polite, but firmly non-committal. In the period since, Washington has amped up military maneuvers with Seoul, while Xi decided to cut China’s oil exports to North Korea by one-third. ***
*** In a separate but related development, Chinese officials are still fuming over the Trump Administration’s imposition last week of an anti-dumping and countervailing duty case against Chinese aluminum producers. While downplaying its impact on the Chinese economy, Beijing is bracing for a period of issues with Washington in addition to bilateral trade, including Syria, Iran, Taiwan, the South China Seas, and North Korea. ***
An Intriguing Parallel
The UN envoy to North Korea, Political Affairs chief Jeff Feltman, is the same UN representative who accompanied then Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to Tehran in August of 2012.
Coming fresh off his role as the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, his presence raised many an eyebrow at the time, eliciting denials by then spokeswoman for the State Department, Victoria Nuland, that he was carrying any messages from Washington to Tehran.
But the next year, Feltman visited Iran’s newly-elected President, Hassan Rouhani, a visit that coincided with a stealth outreach to Tehran by Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman. The agenda of those meetings, as broken by SGH (see SGH 8/27/13, “Syria: Surgical and Proportional, Inshallah“), was to finalize negotiations between the Obama administration, P5+1, and Iran on the nuclear weapons program deal that came to be known as the JCPOA. 
When asked now if the US backs Feltman’s visit to North Korea, State Department officials only say they are “aware” of the meetings.
From the DPRK side, we believe it is significant, although lost in the usual flurry of bellicose rhetoric, that since the launch two weeks ago of the latest Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, reportedly capable of reaching the entire US mainland, the messaging from Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un has been to boast that this launch, suspected in fact to have splintered upon re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, represents now the “completion” of North Korea’s glorious nuclear program.
It is an intriguing historical, if not negotiating, parallel to the JCPOA talks.
A Non-Committal Call with Trump
The day after that launch, from what we understand, President Donald Trump called China’s President Xi Jinping to ask that Beijing completely cut off all oil supplies to North Korea, ban North Korean ships from docking in China, and support UN Security Council proposals to impose additional sanctions on North Korea.
Xi’s response to Trump was strongly hedged, if not non-committal.
Xi stressed that China’s influence on North Korea is not as strong as widely assumed, and noted that China has already tried its best to prevent an outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula.
He then reiterated China’s “unswerving” goals, namely the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, maintenance of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, and the preservation of peace and stability in northeast Asia at large.
Cutting Oil Exports to an Ally
In a meeting later that Friday, Xi did subsequently order a limited cut-off of oil supplies to North Korea. The initial directive from Xi to the leadership in Beijing was to cut off half or one-third of oil supplies to the DPRK, starting this month (see SGH 12/1/17, “North Korea: China to Cut Oil Exports, Impose Bank Sanctions”).
From what we understand, a final decision was in fact made to cut crude oil exports to North Korea by one-third of China’s “original export plan.”
In that Friday meeting, Xi was also reported to express China’s support for North Korea.
The relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, he said, is not as good as it was in the past, but not as bad as some “pessimists” would believe. While the DPRK will not “fawn over” China, it does not want to break relations with China.
And maintaining relations with North Korea, Xi added, is crucial – China must never turn North Korea into an enemy, at any time, in any situation. To his internal audience, he proceeded to assert that both the DPRK and the US were in violation of UNSC resolutions, with the US expanding the intent of UN resolutions at will. 
China, he is reported to have said, has fulfilled its obligations to the UN, at the cost of its relations with the DPRK, while the US and its allies have failed to fulfill their obligations and to push for talks.
Chinese officials fully expect North Korea to bide for time to continue conducting nuclear tests, and to launch additional tests of its Hwasong-15 missile to finalize its design over the next few months. But Beijing’s official policy response will be framed by a stated imperative that UNSC sanctions not unduly harm the North Korean people, bring down the North Korean regime, or turn North Korea into an enemy of China.
Anger over Aluminum
Since then, Beijing, while never explicitly linking the Korea issue with trade, is also expressing deep dissatisfaction with the imposition last week by the Trump administration of the first anti-dumping and countervailing WTO duty case against Chinese aluminum producers in twenty-five years.
Still seething from the US refusal to grant China market economy status, Chinese officials downplay the latest WTO action on aluminum as more symbolic than substantive. They note that as compared to the 240,00 tons, or roughly $600 million worth, of alloy aluminum sheet China is expected to export this year to the US, domestic production stands at 80 million tons.
But they add there is no question relations between the US and China have taken a turn for the worse since Trump’s visit a month ago to Beijing, from “seemingly warm” to “a delicate state.”
In addition to emerging tensions over bilateral trade, Chinese officials are bracing for more substantive issues arising over Syria, Iran, Taiwan, the South China Seas, and North Korea.
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