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China boosting trade with North Korea to undermine Donald Trump: Report

September 5, 2018

Nearly three dozen North Korean cargo ships were spotted pulling into coal docks at the Chinese port of Longkou during May and June, according to a report Wednesday that claimed Beijing has allowed increased trade with Pyongyang just as President Trump has tried to maintain economic pressure on Kim Jong-un’s regime.

The report by NBC News, citing satellite imagery and other data from Windward, a firm that tracks maritime traffic, claimed the development exposed a loosening of Chinese restrictions on things like coal purchases from North Korea in a manner that has undercut Mr. Trump’s leverage in diplomacy with Mr. Kim.

Noting that no North Korean ships had paid a visit to the Longkou port between January and May of this year, the report argued that China allowed the sudden increase in order to ensure Beijing’s own influence over Pyongyang would not wane amid Mr. Trump’s historic pursuit of direct nuclear negotiations with the Kim regime.

The report follows sharp criticism by Mr. Trump of China’s role in his administration’s push for a breakthrough in talks with North Korea talks that administration critics say have hit a wall during recent weeks with little to no sign of movement by the Pyongyang toward abandoning its nuclear weapons.

In a barrage of tweets last week, Mr. Trump roundly accused Beijing of playing a spoiler role behind the U.S.-North Korea talks in a bid to gain leverage for itself in separate U.S.-China trade negotiations. The president suggested Beijing is so frustrated with the trade negotiations that it has been increasing trade with North Korea and pressuring Pyongyang not to cooperate with Washington.

“China is providing North Korea with considerable aid, including money, fuel, fertilizer and various other commodities,” the president tweeted. “This is not helpful!”

Chinese officials dismissed the allegation, with a spokeswoman at the foreign ministry in Beijing claiming that Washington is responsible for the lack of progress in North Korea nuclear talks and that China “won’t and cannot take the blame.”

Regional experts are divided on the question of whether Beijing is trying to undercut the nuclear talks through increased trade with North Korea.

Joseph R. DeTrani, a former CIA official who served as special envoy to past talks with Pyongyang, told The Washington Times this week that he believes the portrayal of China as a spoiler is off the mark. To the contrary, Mr. DeTrani said, Beijing may be frustrated that Pyongyang is not moving quickly enough to work with Washington toward denuclearization.

Others, meanwhile, claim the Trump administration has actually dropped the ball when it comes to maintaining so-called “maximum pressure” on North Korea that some of the president’s advisors have argued would be essential to get Pyongyang to follow through on abandoning its nuclear weapons.

Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea deputy division chief and fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, told The Times last week that “the U.S. has been refraining from maximum pressure.”

“President Trump announced in early June that he was not sanctioning 300 North Korean entities a number equivalent to all North Korean entities sanctioned in 9.5 years of the Trump and Obama Administrations,” Mr. Klingner said. “Since then, the U.S. has sanctioned a small number of primarily non-North Korean entities.”

The NBC News report on Wednesday suggested China is exploiting the situation.

From coal shipments to revived construction projects to planes ferrying Chinese tourists to Pyongyang, China has reopened the door to both legal and illegal trade with the North, throwing the North Korean government a vital lifeline while derailing U.S. diplomacy, the report claimed.

As a result, it said, the White House’s bid to impose “maximum pressure” in hopes of pushing the Kim regime to abandon its nuclear and missile program has been dealt a severe blow. The report quoted Daniel Russel, a former senior State Department official who oversaw China policy, as saying the “Trump administration’s much vaunted maximum pressure is now at best minimal pressure. ... And that means a huge loss of leverage.”

The report specifically claimed data obtained from the firm Windward showed at least 29 North Korean cargo vessels visited the coal docks at the Chinese port of Longkou in May and June. It also claimed that traffic has picked up on the border bridge between North Korea and the Chinese city of Dandong, citing information from NK Pro, a website focused on North Korea, that has said small trucks carrying coal have been photographed moving across the border bridge.

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