By: Ki Suh Jung
In February 2017, China announced that it would ban all coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2321. While China has not referenced any one specific event as the reason for imposing the ban, the sanction follows a North Korean ballistic missile test and the murder of Kim Jong-nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, for which the South Korean government blames North Korea. China’s tough stance towards its unruly neighbor is a welcome change, and the international community should continue to encourage China to wield its undeniable influence on North Korea to curb its nuclear weapons aspirations.
China’s ban on coal imports from North Korea is significant because historically, China has been delinquent in enforcing the sanctions implemented by the UN Security Council. For example, after the Security Council imposed Resolution 2270, which banned trade in rare minerals, including coal, and implemented inspections of cargo going in and out of North Korea, Chinese businesses reported that they were never instructed to stop importing coal from North Korea. China’s noncompliance was a crucial exemption for North Korea, as coal is the country’s top export material, accounting for 33 percent of total exports, and China is North Korea’s largest trading partner.
While some have assessed previous sanctions to be ineffective given continued efforts by North Korea to develop its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, China’s active participation in the sanctions is a significant new development. Whether this will halt or slow North Korea’s weapons programs remains to be seen. While China still does not desire a regime collapse in North Korea, its strict enforcement of Resolution 2321 will provide a clear signal to North Korea that the country will no longer act as an unconditional lifeline. In order for China to remain on board with the sanctions plan, all parties involved must reiterate to China that the goal is nonproliferation, not regime change.
While both United States and South Korea have considered regime change in their policies toward North Korea, such a position is a nonstarter with China for two reasons. First, North Korean refugees would flood into China following the destabilization of the regime. Second, if North and South Korea were unified, China would lose the buffer that North Korea provides against the U.S.-allied South Korea. Since the beginning of the 21st century, China has been challenging the U.S.-led regional order in the Asia-Pacific by occupying and building on disputed territories and creating the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, among other initiatives. While navigating Pyongyang’s rebellious behavior has proven challenging for Beijing, China still views North Korea as instrumental in its regional policy.
Nuclear nonproliferation in North Korea, however, is a goal that all parties can stand behind. North Korea’s ballistic missile tests threaten both South Korean and Japanese national security interest. North Korea has also tested rocket engines for intercontinental ballistic missiles, which could be capable of reaching the continental United States, and Pyongyang has never shied away from threatening Washington. China, for its part, denounces North Korean nuclear and missile tests, even if its actions have not spoken louder than its words until recently.
Nonproliferation in North Korea could also help defuse a contentious issue between China and South Korea. In early March, the United States began its deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an anti-missile system battery, to South Korea. While Washington asserts that the purpose of THAAD is to defend South Korea against North Korean missile strikes, Beijing is concerned that it would be able to also monitor Chinese missile launches. If nonproliferation in North Korea can be achieved, the United States and South Korea would no longer have justification for fielding THAAD on the peninsula. Tensions between China and its neighbors exist on various issues, but they must not prevent the involved parties from working together to stop or slow North Korea’s weapons programs. The stakes are simply too high.
North Korea has been surprisingly resilient over the decades, and to assume that Pyongyang will immediately give up its weapons program because China has decided to enforce UN-imposed sanctions would be unwise. China’s ban on coal imports, however, presents an opportunity for greater cooperation and coordination among involved states to implement effective policies towards North Korea. Whatever differences they might have on other issues, the United States, South Korea, and China cannot afford to be divided on this one.
Ki Suh Jung is an Asia-Pacific Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also an officer in the U.S. Navy, deployed in the Pacific. Ki Suh earned his BA in Economics and Government from Dartmouth College in 2011.