North Korea’s Kim Jong Un personally supervised the launch of the country’s first-ever intercontinental ballistic missile in the wee hours of July 4, defying the US and international community at large.
But before the missile took flight, President Donald Trump had leaned on President Xi Jinping of China, North Korea’s main trading partner, to cut off the flow of funds to Kim.
While Trump seemed satisfied at first with Xi’s moves to curb trade with North Korea, he has recently soured on the relationship, tweeting that “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us.”
Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Business insider that while China has increased trade with North Korea about 37 per cent, it’s all been perfectly legal.
UN sanctions on North Korea target trade that could directly fund North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, not regular trade that North Korea relies on for survival.
“Trade itself with North Korea is not illegal,” Glaser told Business Insider. “So the fact that China’s trade with North Korea is up almost 40% over the same period last year doesn’t say anything about whether China is complying with UN sanctions.”
China maintains that it has a weak diplomatic relationship with North Korea, which appears true. Xi has never visited Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, and Kim has never been to Beijing. High-ranking officials with ties to China in North Korea have been executed at Kim’s order, sometimes with packs of dogs, sometimes with anti-aircraft guns.
But according to Gordon Chang, the author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” 90% of North Korea’s trade is done with China, accounting for 90% of its oil and, in some years, 100% of its aviation fuel, and if Xi wanted, he could bring North Korea to the verge of collapse in a heartbeat.
Writing in The Cipher Brief, Chang pointed out that after a provocative North Korean missile launch in 2003, China cut off its supply of oil to North Korea for three days. In no time, the Kim regime caved to international demands and sat down for the six-party talks on nuclear disarmament.
“China can disarm North Korea in the blink of an eye,” Chang wrote.
And it could do so by crippling North Korea’s economy — but at a huge cost to North Koreans.
Although the UN takes very seriously the prospect of an aggressive, nuclear-armed North Korea, economic warfare in the form of too-harsh sanctions would harm or kill civilians; China also supplies at least a third of North Korea’s food, according to Chang.
Additionally, China pressing North Korea to the point of regime collapse would contradict its interests, as Beijing doesn’t want to face a strong, democratic, unified Korea on its border that could play host to US military installations.
But North Korea, with its incessant nuclear provocations and nearly weekly missile tests, functions as a giant bull’s-eye for the US, though any military confrontation would run a high risk of going nuclear and killing hundreds of thousands, if not more.
“China will either decide to help us with North Korea or they won’t,” Trump said in an April interview with the Financial Times. “If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.”
So as North Korea progresses toward a nuclear missile that can strike the US, China must decide how hard it’s willing to press the rogue Kim regime while considering its increasingly strained relationship with the US over supporting it.