If you are having a hard time keeping up with the latest sanctions on North Korea, you are not alone. (The U.S. Treasury Department announced them on 24 January.)

Outside of the small group of people for whom such stuff is the vital life’s blood of specialization – the UN Panel of Experts, Treasury-types, and a very small handful of think tankers who tend to have sub-interests in missile technology and satellite imagery – everyone is on the back foot trying to get up to speed.

But, in truth, things could be more difficult. Imagine trying to keep up with the barrage of sanctions data from a very different vantage point, from a place that truly matters in terms of enforcement: namely, the offices of the PRC Customs Bureau in Dandong or its port of Donggang.

Do the customs officers and workers in Dandong read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal? Do they talk about Stephan Haggard’s, or Justin Hastings’, or John S. Park’s latest presentations and books? Are there grimy and dog-eared stacks of thick print-outs of Chinese translations of Leo Byrne’s NK Pro output from 2017 on their desks?

More measurably, we can ask: to what extent, if any, are the new sanctions are being discussed in the Chinese news media, or by PRC state academics? When a Chinese bank or business is hit with an executive order or Treasury notice for working with North Korea, does anyone in China hear about it?


To judge from commentaries in foreign affairs tabloids, more ink has been spilled in China on the alleged perils of the Vancouver conference than what the new sanctions actually are, much less how they are going to be enforced.

What passes for news in China about the measures dwells more on the government’s desired attitude toward the sanctions

However, the organ of the CCP Youth League, the Beijing Qingnianbao, appears to be one of the few Chinese outlets that was permitted to cover the new U.S. sanctions on North Korea, doing so with an antiseptic summary of the targets and the shipping element.

But the “explanatory” element of the article dwelled on the unprecedented nature of the U.S. pressure campaign, highlighting that North Korea is under threat from American preemptive attacks, and implying that these threats, along with sanctions, could scupper the positive steps being taken in inter-Korean relations.

In other words, no corroborating details were given, much less further research encouraged. Most of all, the Chinese coverage of the new sanctions pointedly did not mention the location on Chinese territory of a handful of the North Korean representatives – which included some North Korean offices which had extended up the Yalu River beyond Dandong and into small PRC cities in Jilin province like Ji’an and Linjiang.

Instead of great detail about the sanctions, what passes for news in China about the measures dwells more on the government’s desired attitude toward the sanctions. Take this PRC Foreign Ministry statement from 26 January. (I have taken the Chinese version of the remarks as the basis and therefore modified the MFA’s official translation):

Q: Western intelligence officials have said that, according to shipping records, North Korean ships have been violating relevant UN Security Council resolutions and transporting coal from the DPRK to Russia. Moreover, evidence exists that Chinese ships were involved in this action which I have just mentioned [有证据显示中国船只参与了上述行为]. Are you or are you not aware of the involvement of any Chinese ships in this trade? If you are, what measures are the Chinese side taking to prevent it?

A: I don’t know about the specific situation you have mentioned. China’s position is very clear. We hope that the UN Security Council resolutions on the DPRK will be fully and earnestly implemented. We will not allow any Chinese enterprise or individual to engage in any violation of Security Council resolutions [我们不会允许任何中国企业或个人从事违反安理会决议的事情]. If confirmed by undeniable evidence [确凿证据证明] that relevant enterprises or personnel from the Chinese side are engaged in activities that violate the resolutions, the Chinese government will certainly, in accordance with the laws and regulations, deal with them strictly.

The formula seems clear enough. It is a profession of ignorance followed by the familiar grooves of a policy position, then followed by a semi-interesting statement whose argot about “undeniable evidence” is simply a repeat of the Chinese ambassador’s swipe at the UN Panel of Experts at the Security Council vote of 29 November 2017.

And it concludes with just enough tough talk to be included in a “balanced” piece of reporting on the matter. No wonder that there are still so many gaps in our understanding of what has happened to Ma Xiaohong, perhaps the most prolific violator of UN sanctions on North Korea to be taken down in recent years.


To get somewhat closer to the day-to-day operation and policy initiatives which are presently the concern of public security and customs officials in Dandong and along China’s border with North Korea, we have to dip into the very cold waters of Chinese domestic politics.

Xi Jinping is engaged in a massive campaign to control his own Party, using anti-corruption campaigns as a primary vehicle. He is also restructuring the military command structure whilst emphasizing border defense.

Local cadre in the border region have every reason to be vigilant about North Korea-related business illegality

Perhaps in order to become more visible in China, North Korean sanctions enforcement will need to align with ongoing CCP initiatives in the border region, and in the cities like Shenyang where DPRK firms have set up shop. Namely, the language, framework, and context for sanctions enforcement in China need more discussion.

To put this in terms of our imagined Dandong customs post: is it possible that they, the people who actually have the most influence over how UN sanctions on North Korea are carried out, are more concerned with, fluent in, and existentially sensitive to anti-corruption directives from Beijing rather than what to them amounts to extraterritorial UN Security Council or U.S. Treasury Department mandates?

Local cadre in the border region have every reason to be vigilant about North Korea-related business illegality. In Changbai, just across from Hyesan, the Chinese Communist Party secretary was placed under investigation for a host of corrupt actions, none of which explicitly were linked to North Korea, but which certainly sent a shiver through the local party just a few days after a new round of sanctions on North Korea landed.

In Dandong, a new national campaign to wipe out criminal syndicates is being pushed into every bureaucracy, where incentives for informants are mixed with warnings of harsh punishments for those who leak state secrets or reveal (presumably to journalists) details about who is under investigation and for what.

Given the amount of money sloshing around Dandong and the new emphasis on going after cadre who serve as “umbrellas” for criminal activities, it is fairly remarkable that more is not known about who has fallen under investigation while doing business with North Koreans. It may never happen, but it might also be a matter of time, or of asking the right questions of one’s Chinese interlocutors.

One last historical angle bears mentioning. The rhetorical and political similarities between the current Xi-ist campaign and Mao’s “Three Anti, Five Anti” campaigns of 1951-52 are striking. Skeptics who find this observation or parallel to be a stretch when it comes to the anti-corruption campaign’s relevance to North Korean sanctions are encouraged to look back again to the Korean War.

In Volume 1 of Mao Zedong’s Nianpu published in Beijing 2013, the sources show that corrupt Chinese activity and CCP anti-corruption activity stretched regularly over the Yalu and Tumen rivers and into the Chinese supply chain to the embattled North Korean state. One personality cult takes its cues from another, after all.

The U.S. beating on the Chinese door over the need for contingency planning seems to have yielded at least a few small gains

Trying to stay current with sanctions developments is hard for scholars, but living under sanctions is certainly a far more difficult task. At the end of the day, in whatever way the sanctions literature and news is framed, and whatever the Chinese do or do not do, the importance of the sanctions rests in how they are received and adapted to in Pyongyang and around the DPRK.

Kim Jong Un’s statement of 12 January at the State Academy of Sciences was particularly striking, not just for its defiance of sanctions, but his public willingness for the North Korean population to live under sanctions for the entire 21st century if necessary.

Naturally, this statement was also not covered in Chinese state media, as it might have draped a wet blanket over the Olympic good feeling and implied that Chinese policy toward North Korea had not resulted in the moderation of Kim’s goals.

So apart from reading and seeing Chinese interests more widely with respect to North Korea in the border region, what can be done? The U.S. beating on the Chinese door over the need for contingency planning seems to have yielded at least a few small gains. Unfortunately the same does not appear to be true about the mechanics and the reception of North Korea sanctions in China.

Perhaps U.S. Treasury officials could be allowed to travel to smoggy Beijing or Seoul for some round tables with Chinese academics and officials in order to discuss the broader issues around sanctions and sanctions enforcement.

I assume these American patriots would bring some large binders of material to share with their counterparts, and would listen carefully to what details could be gleaned in between and after the prepared statements.

Finally, non-satellite-based data about Chinese sanctions enforcement is hard to come by, but some new questions are worth asking, because they have obvious implications.

Sanctions drives that can be hooked in some way to the ceaseless project of CCP power consolidation probably have a better chance of being enforced.