World View: China Announces It Will Block Imports of North Korea’s Coal

Two events in the last week – North Korea’s test of a long-range ballistic missile and the assassination, possibly by North Korean agents, of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of president Kim Jong-un – have infuriated and embarrassed China’s leaders, since they enormously complicate China’s foreign policy.

The ballistic missile test is particularly troubling to China’s leadership for several reasons:

  • It violates UN Security Council resolutions supported by China. Furthermore, the missile test threatens the political stability of the entire region, and China’s leaders object when any country other than China threatens the regional stability.

  • The missiles begin tested, while nominally intended for use against Japan, South Korea and the United States, could also be used against targets in China, if the child dictator Kim Jong-un feels threatened in some way by China.

  • China has vigorously objected to the deployment in South Korea of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, claiming that the defensive missiles are not needed and that they in some way threaten China. North Korea’s ballistic missile test makes the THAAD deployment in South Korea even more necessary.

China’s announcement on Saturday that it would suspend all coal shipments from North Korea was a surprise, but not totally unexpected. On Monday of last week, the day after the ballistic missile test, China prevented a North Korean ship from unloading a shipment of 16,295 tons coal, worth about US$1 million, at a Chinese port, and ordered that it be returned to North Korea. However, China blamed the rejection not on the ballistic missile test, but instead on a claim that the coal contained higher-than-permissible level of mercury.

China’s announcement could have significant economic impact on North Korea. In order to import foreign goods, North Korea needs foreign reserves. In order to get foreign reserves, it needs to export goods. About 90% of North Korea’s exports go to China, and most of that is coal. So this announcement will severely limit the foreign goods that North Korea can import.

The intent is that by limiting North Korea’s ability to import, the country will be unable to import that equipment required for further development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. It is not clear that this objective is realistic, as Kim Jong-un has previously been willing to allow his people to starve rather than to allow his nuclear weapons program to starve. No matter what the intent, Kim will let his people starve and will torture, jail and execute anyone who objects.

China implemented a partial ban on coal imports from North Korea last year but left open a loophole that would allow some coal imports if they would benefit the North Korean people. The partial ban turned out to be a joke because North Korean manipulated the loophole and actually increased coal imports to China by 12-14% after the partial ban was announced, which was extremely embarrassing to China.

China criticizes other nations for destabilizing the region, even though China continually destabilizes the region by confiscating other countries’ territories and building illegal military bases in the South China Sea, while threatening Japan in the East China Sea. This entire political strategy is being thrown into chaos by the actions of North Korea.

China has the ability to bring North Korea to its knees economically, but both China and Kim Jong-un are well aware that doing so is a very high-risk strategy. A government coup in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, could bring to power someone that favors peaceful reunification with South Korea – something that is quite possible now that three or four generations have grown up since the end of World War II and the Korean War. Or an even worse scenario is that a retaliatory act by Kim Jong-un might be directed at either China or South Korea (or Japan or the US), and this could lead to a war on the Korean Peninsula that would draw in the Chinese military and would result in millions of North Korean refugees pouring into China.

The point is that China is rapidly running out of choices. Allowing Kim Jong-un to continue ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development is extremely dangerous to China, but trying to stop that development with economic sanctions is also extremely dangerous. One can only speculate what China might try next – perhaps some sort of military action or commando raid on North Korean military targets. But this is just one more area, like the situations in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where China’s leaders are running out of time and they know it and may become desperate enough to do something stupid. Yonhap News (Seoul) and BBC and Washington Post

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