Beijing has been notoriously indecisive in resisting North Korea’s missile deployments, mostly operating through diplomatic means to persuade North Korea to disband its nuclear weapons and missile activities. Although diplomatic efforts are important and a coalition of countries (US, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia) has tried to broker a resolution with Pyongyang during the Six-Party Talks, there is little doubt that China’s efforts are also politically motivated. In recent years, Beijing has called on the United States to stop their large-scale military exercises in South Korea in exchange for North Korea discontinuing their weapons program. While there is little indication that North Korea would respond in kind, it is clear why China would support such a solution. As a regional hegemon, China is not supportive of increasing US authority in its sphere of influence and has resisted collaborative military efforts between the United States and South Korea throughout history. China’s recent support of UN sanctions against Pyongyang, although instrumental, is perhaps too late. While North Korea increases its military capabilities, it is important that the United States and China do not alienate each other and hinder effective sanctions on North Korea.
China has repeatedly objected the deployment of US antimissile systems (THAAD – Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in July in South Korea. While THAAD cannot shoot down North Korea’s intermediate-range missiles, its radar system is designed to provide early warning to larger US missile interception systems in the Pacific. The question of US missile systems has already soured relations in East Asia, with newly elected South Korean president Moon Jae-in initially suspending its development. However, with heightening tensions between North Korea and its neighbours, the President has moved forward with their deployment to advance South Korean defense capabilities. In response, China has threatened economic retaliation against South Korea. Not only has the missile shield destabilized relations between China and South Korea, but the prospect of US re-engagement in East-Asian affairs after withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has renewed threats of US expansion as well. Both Beijing and Moscow are concerned with THAAD’s radar, which could give Washington tracking data of their ICBMs and other defense and nuclear deterrent systems. Theoretically, the US could incorporate THAAD into a larger missile defense system that would greatly undermine China’s nuclear capabilities, especially if Beijing is interested in developing a launch-on-warning advantage.
While the proximate threat of North Korea increases, China and South Korea have become broiled in an economic conflict. Beijing has placed constraints on South Korean businesses operating in China, including ceasing activity of Lotte, a South Korean company that helped the US acquire land for THAAD. In the entertainment and tourism sector, Chinese travel agencies have stopped selling tickets to South Korea and China has canceled tours by famous South Korean K-pop stars. While it is clear the sanctions would affect South Korea asymmetrically, South Korea is China’s second largest trade partner and a prime source of foreign direct investment. These economic disagreements will inevitably distract China and South Korea from the situation in North Korea. Beijing has also pursued a military response by developing more advanced Chinese missiles. Two Chinese missile programs have already received funding: hypersonic glide vehicles and MIRVs, both of which will allow China to avoid THAAD’s radar. It is clear that the Chinese government has taken THAAD as an overt rejection by the United States of collaborative strategic stability with China.
Since 2006, Beijing has avoided UN resolutions against North Korea, unwilling to undermine the Kim regime in fear that the United States may capitalize on the power vacuum. THAAD has been a frustrating hindrance for UN sanctions for a long time and has caused China to place national security over regional and global security. In 2016, the UN Security Council was unable to denounce North Korea for launching a missile that landed near Japan as China was focused on opposing the intended deployment of THAAD. These ballistic missiles were especially dangerous as they landed in the Japanese economic exclusion zone for the first time. The confrontation over THAAD has shifted attention away from the escalating situation in North Korea, turning the global priority of containing North Korea into an ego game between China, the US and South Korea.
Ever since North Korea presented itself as a threat to global security, China has been pressured by the international community to use its economic leverage over its neighbour. On August 5th, the UNSC unanimously passed a US-sponsored resolution to impose economic sanctions on North Korea in response to the launching of two North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles last July. Resolution 2270 expanded the sanctions last year, banning coal and iron ore exports, restricting seafood exports and regulating the employment of North Korean labourers overseas. Coal, iron and seafood constitute a third of the country’s annual $3 billion export revenue and the sanction is thus expected to upset the North Korean economy. North Korea has faced sanctions since 2006, but little has affected their aggressive tactics since China and Russia played a minor role and safeguarded North Korean economic interests. Under these new sanctions, China has tightened its regulation of cross-border commerce. Chinese banks have refused any new loans to North Korea and have been instructed by the People’s Bank of China to draw existing financial deals to a close. This is partly because President Trump revealed his executive order to ban international banks that advance transactions with North Korea from the American market. So while China may have sustained economic relations with North Korea in the past, China is not willing to lose the United States as a trading partner as a consequence.
The recent support, however beneficial, may have come too late. According to both US and Japanese intelligence agencies, Kim Jong-un had successfully ‘miniaturised’ nuclear warheads in August of this year, a requisite for launching a nuclear attack. North Korea is disconcertingly close to building an arsenal of nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States. At the very least, experts predict that the missiles North Korea currently possesses could reach Hawaii and Alaska. Furthermore, few countries doubt that Pyongyang has access to a uranium-enrichment program and abundant reserves of uranium ore. Senior officials from China and the US both see little reason for Kim Jong-un to stop, as the sanctions are largely insufficient.
Large scale powerful embargoes on North Korea, while effective at destabilizing the Kim regime, would lead to mass starvation and would thus be a catastrophe for North Korean people. While past UN sanctions have impoverished the mass population, they have only inconvenienced Pyongyang. Sanctions have only increased the economic gap between the privileged North Korean, who now has more money and goods, and the average North Korean, who has to withstand the real brunt of the sanctions. Past penalties on luxury imports have had little significance, as there are still many illegal channels for the elite to import such merchandise. In contrast, limitations on the export and import of minerals affect engineers, truck drivers, miners and those in mining occupations. Starvation is setting in, and with lack of health care, those in the lowest class pay the highest price. It is possible countries behind the UN sanctions believe an inconvenienced population will either rebel against Kim Jong-un or coerce him to understand that the costs of nuclear weapon development may outweigh the benefits. However, with continued repression of the public and a dictator with a family legacy of human rights violations and horrifying political prison camps, this argument falls flat.
These issues stunting the effectiveness of UN sanctions raise the question of why China had not done more in the past. China maintains that it no longer has as much influence over North Korea’s economy, which is partiallytrue, considering that only a part of the relationship between the two Communist allies during the Cold War has been sustained. However, the trade between the two neighbours continues to proliferate, totaling $2.6 billion in the first few months of this year. Two issues have become Chinese priorities in the context of containing North Korea: geographic and political considerations. Domestic disruption in North Korea might ensue if Beijing places economic sanctions on Pyongyang, and such disruption may flow into China. In April, Beijing had to redistribute 150,000 troops along its North Korean border. Officially, they were deployed to conduct military drills, but there is little doubt that these officials were preparing for an exodus of refugees from the stricken country. These considerations are exclusive to China; the United States has not had to deal with these issues at all. Secondly, as proven by Chinese resistance to THAAD, North Korea provides a strategic buffer between China and US allies in East Asia (Japan and South Korea).
It is worthwhile to wonder what will happen if tensions do not dissipate with sanctions. Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, admitted that tougher sanctions might not be effective. While the trade restrictions will cut North Korean trade, it is not likely that Kim Jong-un will cut back on his nuclear weapons program. If America continues to install tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea and deploy more THAAD systems, China may not be willing to align against North Korea. Furthermore, China has only recently supported the UN sanctions. If the past is any indication, economic sanctions will be accompanied with actions to mitigate the pressure on North Korea. While the Commerce Ministry declared the discontinuation of North Korean companies in China, trade analysis shows China had imported $130 million worth of North Korean coal (1.6 million tons). If this import happened after August, this clearly breaches UN Resolution 2270. Nonetheless, it violates China’s own decree in February of this year, pledging not to import coal from North Korea for the entire year.
It is crucial that China doesn’t place national interests over global security. While China’s recent support has proven that Beijing’s patience with Pyongyang is not unlimited, experts claim that China will not or might not be able to push North Korea economically and force them to change their development of nuclear weapons.