By imposing punitive economic measuresagainst Pyongyang, can China resolve the nuclear crisis?There are many reasons to think not, writes Maxwell Downman

With tensions escalating on the Korean Peninsula, the focus invariably turns to China’s role in the crisis. China, it is repeatedly said, could solve the unsolvable problem of North Korea’s nuclear programme, if only it were incentivised to do so.

The last three US Presidencies have largely operated on this basis, andPresident Trump seems to have embraced the same logic with particular zeal, stating that ‘the United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea’.

Luckily, China appears more willing to engage in sanctions than ever before. China has, to date, abided by UNSCR 2321, the pack of sanctions passed by the UN in November 2016 which explicitly stated that Chinese coal imports from North Korea must not exceed 7.5 million metric tons, or $400 million. Agreement was also found on two new sets of UN sanctions last August and September, limiting North Koreans working abroad and the regime’s oil and petroleum imports.

In February 2017, China suspended coal imports due to quotation limits, and China National Petroleum Corporation, China’s oil giant, suspended fuel sales to the isolated regime in June 2017. Indeed, the latest data shows that China’s trade with North Korea fell to $334.9 million in October, down by over a third from a year ago and the lowest since January 2014.

North Korea’s ideology of Juche emphasises self-reliance in a hostile international environment

While advocates of sanctions will be buoyed by Chinese actions in 2017, their hopes are probably overstated. There remain a number of convincing reasons to doubt the effectiveness of sanctions in rolling back North Korea’s nuclear programme and China’s ability to influence North Korea.

No sanctions to date have succeeded inreversingNorth Korea’s nuclear programme, as repeated studies have shown.A senior policymaker on North Korean counter-proliferation has noted their limitations, stating that, while they have been highly successful in curbingthe regime’s ability to send technology to would-be proliferators and in making small policy changes, they have shown only limited efficacy in moderating North Korea’s behaviour, and none in reversing its nuclear programme.

The logic of sanctions entails that states have an interest in the international system, and that local elites specifically can be pressurised. This, unfortunately, is not the case with North Korea.

First of all,the regime has been isolated for decades, as its ideology of Juche emphasises self-reliance in a hostile international environment. This is not a new phenomenon, but a fact of North Korea’s existence. From its perspective, South Korea and the United States have always wanted rid of the regime, while China and the Soviet Union never provided enough support. So its very isolation makes it difficult to target more effectively.

Indeed, North Korea has shown an incredible resilience to sanctions. In the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union and its aid to North Korea collapsed, 10 per cent of the North Korean population died. This did not lead to regime change, riots, or a revolution: only death.

Secondly, North Korean elites are, sadly, better served by nuclear weapons than by giving into sanctions. Imagine you were a senior North Korean official: how would your lot improve if you got rid of your nuclear weapons? From your perspective, you would end up giving away your one piece of leverage against a hegemon bent on regime change. No matter how much you might hate Kim Jong-Un, it would be mere wishful thinking to believe you would have a role in the government of a reunified Korea.

DISTANT ALLIES: Xi Jinping (l) and Kim Jong-Un have never met
DISTANT ALLIES: Xi Jinping (l) and Kim Jong-Un have never met

There are also technical problems with sanctions, the majority of which are focused on North Korean entities rather than procurement networks. Added to this is a poor understanding of how North Korean military purchases are funded because the state is so secretive, while the long porous land border with China provides ample opportunity for illicit trade.

In addition to the overstating of sanctions’ potential to impact North Korea, China’s ability to apply them is also exaggerated. With 90 per cent of North Korean trade going to China, the argument goes, if only China would cut this, North Korea would have to comply. But this is like arguing that, because the United States could wipe out North Korea with a decapitating nuclear first strike on Pyongyang and the majority of North Korean military sites, they should. It ignores the feasibility of the options based on their consequences.

Nor is China’s influence over North Korea as great as often stated. Pyongyang has a deep distrust of China, especially following its renewal of relations with the West and South Korea. Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un have never met, and Xi has announced that the defence obligations of the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty would not apply in the case of North Korean aggression.

North Korea is an irritant for China. After North Korea’s September 2017 ballistic missile test, China announced that it ‘will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state’. Yet the collapse of the regimewould lead to a flood of refugees coming across the Yalu.

China could not accept a reunified Koreaif the 29,000 US troops in South Korea were stationed on its border.In recent years, China has wooed South Korea, which iscurrently its fourth largest trading partner, with a quarter of South Korean exports going to China. North Korea provocations push South Korea further into America’s security orbit.

In recent years, China has wooed South Korea

On a domestic level, there are a number of constraints to imposing sanctions, which would require China to shut down a vast number of enterprises contributing to norther China’s economy. The majority of Chinese trade with North Korea in China is conducted through the informal economy. For example, in 2017, the Alpha Project found that only two procurement networks operating in China were included in sanctions lists. North Korean trade also represents the lion’s share of trade in many parts of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang provinces, with a population of over 2 million ethnic Koreans. To cut off the main stream of income would be politically unwise and difficult.

Beijing remains doubtful about sanctions as a legitimate tool of diplomacy andhas become increasingly frustrated with an unruly North Korea, and frustrated with the international community’s overestimation of China’s leverage. In light of this, going into 2018, we should be sceptical that sanctions will radically affect the crisis. Similarly, if China senses that sanctions are aimed at regime collapse, rather than reversing North Korea’s nuclear programme, it could decide to disengage. Rather, as China advocates, the international community should focus on how they can involve North Korea in dialogue and shape its nuclear behaviour. Short of military action, this appears one of the few good options.

North Korea is already a nuclear power that shows no sign of giving up its arsenal. Instead of asking how sanctions will reverse its ambitions, we should be asking how the international community can learn to live with things as they are. It is a question to which there are no easy answers.

Maxwell Downman is a political researcher with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), London’s independent disarmament and arms control think-tank. He focuses on nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and East Asian international security


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