Understanding China's behavioral dynamics on N. Korea
Posted : 2017-02-21 16:24
Updated : 2017-02-21 16:58
By Lee Seong-hyon
When China makes a certain move on North Korea, by a rule of the thumb, it is not about North Korea. It is about the United States. Grasping and appreciating this psychology is important in engaging China.
China announced that it would suspend coal imports from North Korea. Some immediate reaction interpreted it as China's exasperation about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's killing of his erstwhile rival brother, Jong-nam, who had been under China's protection. This interpretation gives immediate gratification to the media-sensationalized tragedy, but is likely to be a misplaced one.
A more studious mind interprets it as China's intolerance of the North Korean regime's "adventurism." For instance, in 1975, Kim Il-sung (the current North Korean leader's grandfather) visited Beijing and met with the Chinese leadership, including Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Kim had one goal: to get approval from China for his plan to invade South Korea one more time.
My apology. Actually, Kim didn't use the word, "invade" South Korea. Rather, he used the term, "liberate" South Korea.
China at that time was in a detente with the United States, following Nixon's historic visit. Not wanting to raise the tension on the Korean Peninsula, which would trigger the revisit of the U.S. military China had fought against during the earlier Korean War, China frowned upon North Korea's adventurism and rejected Kim's plea. So, based on this historical incident and others, some would interpret the coal ban as China's warning to Kim Jong-un to contain his adventurism of assassinating his brother in a foreign country that hit the international headlines.
Context matters. These two interpretations provide plausible contexts. But not in this specific case.
We should keep in mind that China has been under mounting criticism from the U.S. in terms of implementing sanctions on North Korea. China's import of North Korean coal became a particularly pronounced issue.
It was part of the sanctions list, but China insisted the sanctions not hurt ordinary North Korean civilians' "livelihood" (minsheng). It is an abstract terminology that could be defined in any number of ways. China had banned imports of coal from North Korea in April last year, but had been making exceptions for those intended for household use (in the name of "minsheng"), which led to criticism over the regulation's effectiveness and China's enforcement.
Coal is seen being important in making the sanctions "biting," as was intended. Coal is North Korea's single biggest export item and most of it goes to China. China imports 85 percent of its coal from North Korea. On Nov. 30, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) adopted a new sanctions package over North Korea's September nuclear test, including a significant cap on Pyongyang's exports of coal. The cap was set at whichever is lower between 7.5 million tons or $400 million.
At issue, again, boils down to the old question: whether China is serious about implementing sanctions. In the aftermath of North Korea's fourth nuclear test in January, 2016, UNSC imposed "the toughest ever" sanctions on North Korea. In the wake of North Korea's fifth nuclear test, the UNSC imposed "the toughest and most comprehensive sanctions."
However, according to the latest assessment by Lee Chan-woo of Tokyo International University, the total Sino-North Korean trade volume in 2016 reached $7.12 billion, a historic high. The import volume of North Korean coal in China reached 1.79 million tons in September, 1.82 in October, 1.91 in November, and 2.0 million tons in December, respectively, in 2016.
The obvious question: When China repeatedly says it faithfully implements the U.N.-mandated sanctions on North Korea, and given North Korea's heavy dependence of its economy on China (80 ~ 90 percent), why does their bilateral trade tally continues to increase despite China's proclamation that it has been reducing it? And even hit a record high? What the statistics suggest is that the UNSC sanctions are not effectively implemented.
In this context, the view that China's latest ban on importing North Korean coal is in reaction to the North Korean leader's killing of his brother or it is China's angry disapproval of the North's adventurism requires re-examination. When asked about the killing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang tersely said: "China and North Korea are ‘friendly neighbors' (youhao jinlin)."
We should instead link it to the Trump administration' determined pressure on China to do more in terms of the latter's implementing sanctions. Trump, more than once, declared that China has "total control" over North Korea. "We should put pressure on China to solve the problem," he said.
Against this backdrop, in the highest-level U.S.-China meet under the Trump administration, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a few days ago in Germany urged his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi "to use all available tools" to rein in North Korea. It also came on the heels of North Korea's new test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). The missile used solid fuel, which was seen as a big step forward in North Korea's quest to boost its ability to attack the United States.
China's behavior concerning North Korea often has an American context. When it comes to sanctions, it's 100 percent. China worries about the increasingly vocal and public call in Washington to consider possible preemptive strikes against North Korea, which will destabilize China's "backyard." China believes that a display of cooperation with the U.S. would moderate Washington's behavior. This "good-will gesture" is seen particularly relevant with the administration of Trump, who is seen as unpredictable.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org