Chinese President Xi Jinping, during a 2014 visit to Seoul National University, South Korea.


North Korea has a long, proud history of flirting with disaster and testing the patience of the international community. For the most part, its only foreign ally, China, has hesitated to respond with heavy economic sanctions. When the UN passed a resolution cutting imports of coal from North Korea by member nations, China backed the resolution while maintaining a “livelihood” exemption, nominally for the sake of the Chinese people’s well-being. As a result, China’s imports of North Korean coal actually increased as the sanctions took effect.

However, in a surprising move in mid-February, China’s Ministry of Commerce released a statement announcing that the country would cease all imports of coal from North Korea. While there’s some speculation as to whether China will follow through with this announcement, China has already turned away a shipment of North Korean coal worth about $1 million, which seems to indicate its resolve. This ban on North Korean coal marks a major shift in China’s strategy for dealing with the country, but not necessarily a change in its core interests.

Sanctions’ Impact on the Hermit Kingdom

The significance of the ban on North Korean coal stems from its potential to cause serious economic problems in the country, on a level China previously seemed unwilling to risk. Coal exports constitute between 34 and 40 percent of North Korea’s total exports, and are almost exclusively sent to China. Worth around $1 billion, the coal trade constitutes a major portion of the country’s $17 billion GDP. In the past, China has been hesitant to risk such drastic measures, lest too severe an economic decline cause political instability in North Korea. Given China’s interest in the regime’s stability, it is unlikely that Beijing will pursue measures much harsher than the coal ban in the foreseeable future, though it certainly has room to do so: approximately 85% of North Korea’s trade is with China, and up to 90% of North Korea’s energy supplies are provided by Beijing.

If China sticks with the ban, the rest of 2017 will be an important test of whether North Korea is truly as vulnerable to Chinese economic pressure as is commonly thought. While the Hermit Kingdom has seemed resilient in the face of sanctions thus far, losing such a substantial portion of its annual GDP could have more serious consequences than previous attempts to pressure the country economically.

Perhaps one sign of the ban’s significance is the harsh criticism it prompted from the North Korean administration. A statement published in the state-run Korean Central News Agency, does not name China specifically, but accuses a certain “neighboring country” of “dancing to the tune of the US,” in an “utterly childish” attempt to prevent further weapons development. Despite its claims that the sanctions will fail to halt its nuclear program, North Korea’s public criticism of China, its only ally and economic crutch, makes it clear that the country is, at the very least, not happy with the sanctions, and possibly quite worried.

China’s Diplomatic Dance

By suspending coal imports, is China really “dancing to the tune of the United States,” as North Korea claims? The brief statement on the Chinese Ministry of Commerce website announcing the ban includes no clear explanation of its cause, prompting much speculation regarding China’s motives.

Based on recent geopolitical developments, the ban seems tied to the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam and to the  North Korean test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile. The missile test signals a significant advancement upon previously known North Korean capabilities, and puts China in the awkward position of being called on to discipline its defiant ally. The assassination of Kim Jong-Nam drove the wedge between China and North Korea even further—as a potential replacement for his half-brother, Kim Jong-Un, he was considered implicit leverage against the North Korean regime.

These recent events have surely impacted the political calculus of Beijing. By putting China in an increasingly unworkable diplomatic position and taking away a significant source of leverage, North Korea may have forced China’s hand. While China has shown no sign of seeking to break from its alliance with North Korea, these events have increased China’s willingness to take risky action in regards to the country. China will only protect North Korea insofar as that protection ensures stability on the peninsula. China wishes to prevent regime change and keep a buffer between itself and U.S.-allied South Korea, which occasionally requires a crackdown on North Korea’s more self-destructive tendencies.

While a desire to check potential instability in North Korea was certainly part of China’s motivation, this cannot account for the ban entirely; it would be a mistake to frame the move as a knee-jerk reaction in hopes of reining in a misbehaving ally. Rather than a sudden response to current events, China’s ban reflects a general negative trend in relations between China and North Korea. Even though there has been a public display of amity between the two countries, China and North Korean relations have been tense for some time now. Xi Jinping has not received or visited North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and is generally thought to have a fairly low opinion of him. If the suspension of coal imports was simply a reaction to North Korean erraticism, then it could have happened at multiple times before now.

China’s actions might be better understood as a deft diplomatic move in an attempt to prod action on North Korea from the new American president. The Trump administration has put pressure on China to take action on North Korea, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging China’s foreign minister to “use all available tools” to prevent further North Korean provocations.

By suspending coal imports, China has issued a concession to Washington and a threat to North Korea, in an attempt to bring both countries back to the negotiating table. Even as it increases pressure on North Korea, China has held firm its position that tensions between the United States and North Korea are at “the crux of the North Korean nuclear issue.”  By China’s reckoning, it is the United States that needs to take responsibility for negotiating denuclearization. China has long pushed for increased diplomatic engagement with North Korea, and is still holding out hope for the resumption of six party talks. China’s ban on North Korean coal is best understood as a stick for North Korea and a carrot for the United States in hopes of leading both towards a resumption of negotiations.

A Murky Future for North Korea Policy

Whether or not this effort will bear fruit remains to be seen. Tensions have only increased since the ban. North Korea has since conducted another missile test in response to the United States and South Korea conducting joint military exercises, prompting the United States and South Korea to deploy THAAD, an anti-missile defense system that China has strongly opposed, on the grounds that it would also be able to track China’s missile systems.

However, the Trump administration does not seem any more inclined to restart negotiations than the Obama administration was. The first scheduled contact between North Korea and the Trump administration has already been canceled, and the United States and South Korea have refused China’s proposal that annual military exercises be canceled in return for North Korea freezing their nuclear programs.

Significantly, the use of military force has been floated as a possible option for dealing with North Korea in an internal White House review, signaling that the Trump administration is willing to take a much more aggressive posture than previous administrations. Previously, the option of direct military force has rarely been considered seriously, as there would be a high likelihood for major conflict breaking out and major consequences for all involved—including the United States.

As tensions around the Korean Peninsula increase dramatically, the major powers involved seem to be at an impasse. Despite China’s attempt to apply economic pressure, North Korea has shown no intention of scaling back its nuclear programs. The United States has been equally firm in its refusal to negotiate without such a freeze on North Korea’s nuclearization. If China’s efforts fail now, it is unclear how much more it will be willing to do to win the cooperation of the two countries.


Image source: Flikr / Republic of Korea

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