Cutting Off Coal: China with a Firm Rebuke of North Korea

Steven Borowiec

By Steven Borowiec, Contributing Writer

As the mysterious killing of a North Korean continues to dominate the news cycle, another piece of North Korea news may be of even greater significance: China has announced the halting of all coal imports from North Korea until the end of this year, which could signal a hefty blow to North Korea’s economy. Coal is North Korea’s main export, and this cutting off of imports, announced by China’s Commerce Ministry, illustrates the economic power China still holds over North Korea. 

The Commerce Ministry did not offer an explanation when announcing the ban, but it isn’t difficult to come up with possible reasons why Beijing may be keen to rap Pyongyang’s knuckles. Against China’s wishes, North Korea recently launched a new ballistic missile, displaying continued development of its weapons capability. Also, the recently killed Kim Jong-nam had close ties to China, where he lived with family members under state protection. It is possible that China saw his killing as an affront to their efforts to safeguard him. Kim’s death also leaves China with the question of what to do about Kim’s wife and children who are believed to still be living in Beijing. 

For an insight into China’s possible motives, I spoke with Adam Cathcart, an expert on China and North Korea at the University of Leeds in the UK. Cathcart told me it’s likely that the ban has its origins in the recently held meeting between U.S. and China foreign ministers in Germany, writing in an email, “It seems likely that the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discussed this in some detail in an hour-long meeting they had in Munich last week, and it is certainly in China's interests at this point to be seen to be making a concession on this front, if only in the interests of preemptively protecting themselves from Trumpian criticism on the matter.”

China and North Korea have a long and cooperative, if at times contentious, relationship that goes back at least to the Korean War. But still, sometimes China feels the need to publicly reprimand the North on certain issues. Fairly or not, China is often believed to hold the key to inducing more compliant behavior from North Korea, and the international community, particularly the US, has long been frustrated with China for its reluctance to crack down more heavily on North Korea for its missile and nuclear programs. 
China also garners criticism from time to time for not fully implementing United Nations sanctions barring various kinds of trade with North Korea. The coal freeze could be a sign of good faith on those fronts from China. It also amounts to “a tacit recognition that China has been lax in enforcing sanctions in the past,” as Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein wrote in the Diplomat.

A bigger question is just how much power China really holds over North Korea. Hazel Smith, a professor at the University of Central Lancashire, told me that Beijing’s sway over North Korean politics is often overestimated, that China actually has little control over political developments in the North. Indeed, there is little indication that the Chinese government has any room to decide what policies are enacted in North Korea, who holds certain government positions and how decision-making power is meted out. 
But it’s important to distinguish between political and economic power. While China is limited in the extent to which it can directly influence North Korean politics, China does hold significant economic power over North Korea in that most of the North’s trade is with China. In recent years, as economic ties with South Korea have frayed, North Korea’s economy has grown ever more reliant on trade with China. 

China also keeps a hand on North Korea’s windpipe by controlling its only active land border. North Korea imports much of what it needs to run the economy from China, and any prolonged stop to cross border traffic would be extremely disruptive. I once asked a North Korean defector who grew up near the border with China how long North Korea’s government would last if China sealed off the border. She answered, “One month”. Coal is North Korea’s main export, and while the state could presumably last more than one month without revenue from exports, a permanent stoppage of sales to China would be a sizeable loss for the North Korean economy. 

The question then is, just how long does China plan to keep the halt to imports in effect for? 

It is possible that China will keep the coal import ban in place long enough to inflict some hurt on North Korea and show that Beijing is serious, but not long enough to cause any severe disruption in North Korea. Let’s not forget, it is still in China’s interest to have a North Korea on its border that is stable and not extremely poor.