North Korea just lost a very big ally.
On Saturday, China said that it was suspending all imports of coal from North Korea as part of its effort to implement United Nations Security Council sanctions aimed at stopping the country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile program. The ban, according to a statement posted on the website of the Chinese Commerce Ministry, takes effect on today and will last until the end of the year. While China will hardly suffer material adverse impacts, Chinese trade - and aid - have long been a vital economic crutch for North Korea, and the decision strips North Korea of one of its most important sources of foreign currency.
The ban comes six days after the North Korean test of a ballistic missile that the Security Council condemned as a violation of its resolutions that prohibited the country from developing and testing ballistic missile technology. In the test, - which took place during a dinner between Japan's Prime Minister and Donald Trump - North Korea claimed that it had successfully launched a new type of nuclear-capable missile. It said its intermediate-range Pukguksong-2 missile used a solid-fuel technology that American experts say will make it harder to detect missile attacks from the North.
According to the NYT, China's decision has the potential to cripple North Korea's already moribund economy: coal accounts for 34-40% of North Korean exports in the past several years, and almost all of it was shipped to China, according to South Korean government estimates. As Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul confirms, coal sales accounted for more than 50 percent of North Korea’s exports to China last year, and about a fifth of its total trade. China had previously bought coal under exemptions that allowed trade for “livelihood” purposes. China’s Ministry of Commerce didn’t respond to faxed questions outside office hours.
“Of course they may have methods to replace the damage, but just by looking at the size of the loss, that’s a pretty big blow,” Yang said.
China's import ban follows a UN Security Council resolution adopted in November in response to the North’s fifth and most powerful nuclear test, according to which the country should not be allowed to export more than 7.5 million metric tons of coal a year or bring in more than $400 million in coal sales, whichever limit is met first. It was unclear whether that cap has already been reached for this year.
Officials of the United States and its allies, including President Trump, have suggested that China, North Korea’s principal economic patron, should be more aggressive in enforcing sanctions. But while it does not approve of the North’s weapons program, China has also been seen as reluctant to inflict crippling pain on North Korea, for fear that it might destabilize its Communist neighbor.
That, however, changed on Saturday and as Bloomberg says "China’s move to ban coal imports from North Korea, effectively slicing the country’s exports by about half, came with a message for the U.S. and its allies: It’s time to do a deal" even if it means risking political upheaval.
While China has previously resisted calls by the U.S. to apply greater pressure on Kim’s regime, North Korea is increasingly becoming a strategic liability, according to Zhou Qi, director of the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “What we’re seeing now is Beijing is showing a new willingness to bring the North to near the breaking point,” she said. “There is still some room to squeeze the regime. But of course, it’s a risky card to play.”
“The Chinese are getting more frustrated with North Korea,” Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer said in an interview at the same conference. “They clearly don’t feel that they have a lot of influence and they’re worried that the U.S. under Trump is going to blame China as opposed to continuing a multilateral process.”
At the same time as China announce the coal import bank, Chinese officials said that pushing North Korea into a corner won’t work as Kim’s regime will keep developing its nuclear capability until it feels safe. Instead, it’s time to restart talks and “break the negative cycle on the nuclear issue,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a statement on Sunday after meeting South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se at a security meeting in Munich.
As Bloomberg adds, China’s call for a new initiative contrasts with a more hawkish tone out of Washington.
President Donald Trump, who during his campaign said he could negotiate with Kim over a hamburger, this month promised to deal with North Korea “very strongly” after its latest missile test. He also called on China to get tougher. The U.S. is putting a defense system called Thaad in South Korea -- a move that also potentially threatens Beijing’s military capabilities.
China may soon have company in making the shift. South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye was impeached in December and the leading candidates to replace her all take a softer line on North Korea, with front-runner Moon Jae-in saying that the next administration should review the decision to deploy Thaad.
Meanwhile, last week's bizarre assassination of Kim’s estranged half-brother, who was protected by Chinese authorities, added to calls in Beijing’s foreign policy establishment to take stronger action, according to Shi Yongming, an associate research fellow at the Foreign Ministry-run China Institute of International Studies. “The case fully exposed the desperate irrationality of the Kim regime,” Shi said. “Beijing still wants to bring him to a negotiation table - and that’s where the U.S. role lies - because the collapse of the regime is right now outside China’s realistic capacity to handle.”
Making the recent situation somewhat embarrassing for Beijing, China has backed the Kim dynasty since it took charge after the Korean War, in part to prevent having a U.S. ally on its border.
With the international community enforcing sanctions on North Korea after a series of nuclear tests, China now accounts for more than 90 percent of its total trade, according to Bloomberg data.
Whether the Chinese ban will bring Kim’s regime to the negotiating table is unclear. North Korea has accelerated its development of nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles since 2009, when it walked away from six-party talks involving the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. However, losing perhaps the biggest source of outside funding will almost certainly lead to political chaos in the communist nation.
The question on everyone's lips, but which few dare to ask in public, is whether Kim Jong-Un, pressed into a corner, will - after years of posturing with his ballistic missile tests, finally launch a rocket into one of the neighboring nations. Trump’s administration has said it will deploy the missile defense system this year in South Korea and back Japan “100 percent” in moves to deter North Korea.
Since it may have no choice but to test out this defense system in the very near future, one hopes that any North Korean "desperation" launches are safely brought down.