A confidential United Nations report suggests North Korea is exporting commodities in direct violation of the international sanctions that have been levied against the Pyongyang regime. The report, submitted by a panel of experts to the UN Security Council, accused North Korea of exporting, or attempting to export oil and other commodities that are prohibited in resolutions, from January to September, 2017. A host of multinational oil companies are also under investigation for their roles in supplying petroleum products to the North, although no specific company names were revealed.
According to the UN report, North Korea has netted $200 million from the shipment of banned commodities. False paperwork, evasive techniques, and circuitous routes were employed to cover up the North’s involvement, but it was not enough. Evidence of military cooperation between North Korea and Syria to develop the later’s chemical weapons capabilities was also discovered.
It’s unlikely that the UN will penalize Pyongyang with additional heavy sanctions with less than a week to go before the start of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. The North has made overtures to South Korea in recent weeks, and will be sending a team of athletes to the games in Pyeongchang. The UN is not about to rock the boat when North Korea has been making the effort (albeit a self-serving one) to behave itself. If the Security Council even whispers about sanctions between now and the beginning of the games it will be a PR jackpot for the North Koreans.
Consequently, do not expect North Korea to face penalties for the sanction violations. There remained a bit of hope in the UN that sanctions imposed by the Security Council might pave the way towards a turn around by Kim Jong Un. That is not going to be the case. With the sanctions so easy to circumvent, no incentive exists for the North Korean government to behave, let alone even care if the sanctions remain in place or not. And it is not as if the UN Security Council is in any position to enforce the sanctions when two of its members are not so clandestinely enabling Pyongyang to skirt a number of the sanctions now in place.
Planning and preparation is underway for the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson’s visit Da Nang in March. News of the potential visit broke when Secretary of Defense James Mattis was in Vietnam for talks with Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam. It’s almost certain now that the United States Navy will be returning to Vietnam in a very big way. Carl Vinson’s port call will mark the first time a US aircraft carrier has sailed in Vietnamese waters since Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of US citizens from Saigon in April, 1975.
Word of the port call comes at a time when tensions in the South China Sea region appear ready to flare up. China has claimed that earlier this month a US Navy destroyer violated its territorial waters when it sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal. There is speculation that Beijing is preparing to make a move in the region. On 30 December, 2017 Chinese state television broadcast video of Chinese military facilities on Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. The broadcast highlighted the scale of China’s military buildup in the region. China may intend to use the transit as the reason for increasing its military presence in and around South China Sea.
Carl Vinson’s visit is symbolic of the growing defense relationship between the United States and Vietnam. Vietnam has been quite vocal with its opposition to Chinese moves in the area, joining India, Australia, Japan, and other regional powers that harbor misgivings about China’s long-term intentions. Those nations have followed the US lead and strengthened their defense relationships with Vietnam over the past five years. India has provided advanced training for Vietnamese fighter pilots, and its budding submarine force. Australia has provided equipment and advisors to a lesser degree.
The purpose that is fueling the relationship’s growth is clear. Vietnam represents the first line of defense against Chinese actions in the South China Sea. The more capable its military becomes, the greater the possibility that it can slow down a potential Chinese military venture until US, Australian, and Japanese warships and aircraft arrive in force.
The Sri Lankan government formally handed over control of the strategic port of Hambantota to China last week. The two nations signed a 99 year lease that gives the Chinese almost-complete control of the port as partial payment on the $8.8 Billion debt Sri Lanka owes to the PRC. China’s presence in Sri Lanka has grown over the last five years and the relationship between the two has flourished as a result. Chinese firms have invested billions of dollars to modernize Sri Lankan port facilities as part of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ drive to expand Chinese market reach.
Concern is expanding across South Asia over China’s investment in Sri Lanka and the level of Chinese involvement in the region overall. Instinctively, New Delhi is alarmed, and suspicious of further Chinese encroachment upon its sphere of influence. The Indians are wary of the growing Chinese challenge to its regional hegemony. Consequently situation in Sri Lanka is hitting close to home both literally and figuratively. The island nation is situated just off India’s southeastern coast and it has been firmly inside of India’s orbit for years. India has invested large sums of treasure, and material to stabilize the island. To address the Chinese presence and influence, India has partnered with Japan to develop Sir Lanka’s eastern coastline, and improve the existing infrastructure there. Beyond India, pushback over Chinese investments and influence has occurred in Nepal, Pakistan, and Myanmar.
India-China relations are still on the mend following the Doklam standoff earlier this year. Both nations appear sincere in their desires to see ties continue improving. However, the potential for an economic proxy war in Sri Lanka is quite real. This situation, along with other rising economic and security challenges in the region threaten to disrupt those relations indefinitely. China is aggressively using its economic power to extend its geopolitical influence far beyond its own borders.
With that influence now butting up against Indian shores, the ball is in New Delhi’s court. India’s response could very well define India-China relations for some time to come.
US military personnel on the Japanese island of Okinawa have been banned from drinking, and restricted to their bases or off-base residences following an automobile crash involving a local man and a US Marine. The Okinawan was killed, and the 21-year old Marine was arrested on suspicion of drinking and driving. Incidents between US troops based on the island and local residents are nothing new, and the relationship between the two groups has always been strained to say the least. With 25,000 US soldiers, and 1,000,000+ Okinawans occupying a relatively small island, tensions are expected. Criminal actions by US soldiers, unfortunately, have become a common occurrence and only serve to increase the amounts of tension and distrust. US commanders realize there is a problem and that it is not going away. “When our service members fail to live up to the high standards we set for them, it damages the bonds between bases and local communities and makes it harder for us to accomplish our mission,” U.S. Forces Japan said in a released statement Sunday night. “We are committed to being good neighbors with our host communities.”
Unfortunately for Okinawans, the US military presence on their island is not going to diminish anytime soon. The situation with North Korea in the short term, and the potential future ambitions of the People’s Republic of China will ensure Okinawa remains vital to American defense plans in the Pacific. In view of this reality, it is in the best interests of all parties to find a way to peacefully co-exist.
Operationally, the forces stationed on Okinawa represent a sizeable fraction of US power in the Western Pacific. 62% of US military facilities in Japan are located on the island. At Kadena Air Base is the US Air Force’s 18th Wing, comprising two F-15C Eagle squadrons, one squadron of KC-135 Stratotankers, a detachment of E-3C Sentry aircraft, and other attachments. The US Marines have the bulk of the 3rd Marine Division, and main elements of III MEF based on Okinawa. The US and Japan have agreed to relocate 5,000 US Marines from Okinawa to other locations in the Pacific to help ameliorate the tense relationship between US service personnel and local residents. The relocations are not expected to begin until 2020 at the earliest.
Not surprisingly, the media has been reluctant to grasp the message embedded between the lines of President Trump’s speeches, and remarks concerning North Korea on his Far East tour. It is apparent US patience is wearing thin when it comes to the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities. However, Washington’s diminished willingness to endure is not the result of a personal restlessness on the part of Trump. It exists in view of the fact that the North Koreans are fervently working to produce a functioning ballistic missile that can reach US shores, along with a hydrogen weapon that can be attached to it. In the early days of the Trump administration it was made clear to him that North Korea has been moving rapidly in that direction, emboldened by US reluctance to effectively address his nation’s WMD programs over the past twenty years. Trump is not handling North Korea in the same manner as his predecessors did. Kim Jong Un has taken some time to digest the new reality and figure out a way to contend with the increased American pressure. His new strategy is to engineer a workable missile and weapon before the United States can stop him. In essence, Kim has turned the twenty-three year old marathon between the US and North Korea into a sprint to the finish line. President Trump, his foreign policy, and military advisers recognize this even though the media refuses to.
Trump is now in China for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. North Korean tensions will undoubtedly dominate their discussions. The two presidents have been working to handle the North Korean situation together, however, it appears as if that approach has earned a limited return. Trump will likely inform Xi that time is running out and if China is resolved to decisively influence the situation now is the time. Xi’s position is understandable. He does not want to see a war erupt between North Korea and the US and her allies in such close proximity to China’s borders. Nor does he want North Korea to collapse beneath its own weight and be replaced by unified Korea that is pro-US.
To avoid either one of these possibilities from becoming reality, any Chinese move needs to be centered around changing the North Korean regime internally. Despite the image of Kim Jong Un controlling every facet of the North Korean government, factions do exist in Pyongyang. There is a pro-China faction that, if cultured and funded properly, could serve as the instrument to remove Kim from power and replace him with one that is more moderate in tone, and does not pose such a flagrant threat to the US. A Beijing-backed coup attempt carries a host of potential dangers as well as rewards. Yet at this point in the game, if the choices for Xi are to do nothing or do something akin to playing with fire, the Chinese President’s best option may be to choose the fire option and accept the risks of being burned.