Making China Pay on North Korea

Why Beijing's Coal Ban Isn't Enough

A worker at the Chinese port of Dandong, near the North Korean border, pauses while front-end loaders move North Korean coal, December 2010. Jacky Chen / Reuters

On February 18, the Chinese Commerce Ministry announced a ban on coal imports from North Korea, raising hopes that Beijing may finally be ending its support for its communist ally and neighbor. The ban went into effect immediately and will remain in place until the end of the year. China appeared to be going beyond its November commitments, stated in UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2321, which involved capping North Korean coal imports rather than halting them outright.

Analysts saw the ban as a demonstration of Chinese discontent with North Korea’s murder of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un. Jong Nam had been critical of his younger brother’s rule, telling the Japanese journalist Yoji Gumi that he questioned “how Jong Un, who merely resembles my grandfather, will be able to satisfy the needs of North Koreans.” Rumor has it that Kim Jong Un had previously tried to have Jong Nam killed in 2012, and South Korean intelligence officials admitted after his death that there has been a standing order to kill him since 2011, after which the Chinese informally committed to protecting him as he shuttled between casinos in Macao and his mistresses in Southeast Asia. Given that between 80 and 85 percent of North Korea’s external trade is with China, Beijing’s decision to pressure North Korea economically could help compel Pyongyang to denuclearize.

But when it comes to China and North Korea, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. China is part of the solution when it comes to North Korea, but, through its continued material support of the Kim regime, it is also part of the problem. In order to make progress on North Korea’s nuclear program, Western leaders will therefore need to frame near-term policy choices for China in a way that encourages Beijing’s compliance with existing UN sanctions on North Korea, while creating in the longer term a more direct Chinese stake in its neighbor’s denuclearization.


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