Following a bumpy week in China-North Korea relations, Beijing has decided to halt all coal imports from its nuclear-obsessed neighbor for the rest of the year.
Last Sunday, Pyongyang stirred up trouble in the region yet again with another missile test. In the past, China has been criticized for not doing enough to muzzle North Korea’s nuclear ambitions as the impoverished state’s chief ally and main lifeline. But, this time, it decided to hit the hermit kingdom where it hurts.
“Imports of coal produced in North Korea — including shipments already declared to the customs but yet to be released — will be suspended for the remainder of this year,” said China’s Ministry of Commerce in a short public statement posted to the ministry’s website.
Coal is North Korea’s main export and it exports most of its coal to China, helping to prop up its fragile economy, providing nearly half of its foreign currency.
While cautioning that China may very well not be serious about enforcing the sanctions, North Korea expert Stephan Haggard writes that if they are this could be “one of the most significant developments on the Korean peninsula” in over a decade, placing the pressure back on the new Trump administration in Washington to make a move:
If this is for real, then we are about to see a real test of a proposition I have been offering for some time: that the North Korean economy is more vulnerable to Chinese pressure than is thought. North Korea is not immune from the laws of economics, and could easily experience a full-blown balance-of-payments-cum-currency crisis, with the black market value of the won plummeting rapidly and domestic prices spiraling in tandem.
But before we get too excited, the outcome of this episode will depend not only on whether China follows through, but on the politics of the move. If China is squeezing North Korea, it is for one purpose and one purpose only: to offer a cooperative gesture to the incoming Trump administration in return for an initiative on negotiations. The key question is whether the US can pick up on the offer given the transition and the answer could well be “no.”
Just in case, China is broadcasting its message loud and clear, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urging that it’s time to restart talks and “break the negative cycle on the nuclear issue.” After North Korea’s latest missile test, Trump promised to deal with the regime “very strongly.”
Of course, the sanctions also closely follow the sensational assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of the North Korean leader, at the Kuala Lumpur airport by a pair of women who claim that they thought they were taking part in a “prank.”
Following his fall from grace as the likely successor to his father as the “supreme leader” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong Nam moved to Macau in the early 2000s and was believed to be under Chinese protection. Some have speculated that the coal sanctions are a response to his poisoning.
But China’s nationalistic tabloid, the Global Times, published an editorial today trying to debunk this notion, interviewing “scholars” who “all agreed that the speculation is ludicrous.”
“For one thing, there is still no conclusion about who is responsible for Kim’s death. For another, Kim Jong-nam as a ‘political card’ of Beijing doesn’t conform to the logic of contemporary Chinese diplomacy,” the editorial explains.
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