Paul French is a London-based analyst with a special interest in China and North Korea. He is the author of” North Korea: State of Paranoia” (Zed Books, 2015).
Kim Jong Un is communicating with the outside world, or at least the two parts of it that matter to him most at present — Washington and Beijing. Certainly the North Korean missile test during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States recently was a calculated message to the new Trump administration and so, it is probably safe to assume, was the apparent assassination of the supreme leader’s dissident half-brother Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur (for which North Korea is being blamed). Pyongyang is keenly aware that the new U.S. administration is yet to publicly announce its policy on the tense Korean Peninsula.
So far President Trump’s few pronouncements on North Korea have been vague. They indicate that he could opt for either a policy of vilification, not dissimilar to that of the George W. Bush White House and its “Axis of Evil” tone, or one of deal making, similar to that of the Clinton administration. Clinton sought engagement when Pyongyang, then run by Kim Jong Il, controversially restarted its nuclear program. Bush turned to demonization when the previous policy failed to stop the nuclear threat from the Peninsula. Trump has, in short order, talked tough on North Korea and Kim Jong Un, then suggested he might meet Kim (an idea he hastily reversed) and, in an effective continuation of the Obama administration’s policy, finally urged China to take the lead and apply pressure.
Eager not to be ignored, North Korea, by missiles and possible assassination, has forced itself more decidedly upon the president’s agenda. Simultaneously the two extreme acts have forced Beijing’s hand also. Frustrated by its inability to rein in Pyongyang and reduce nuclear tensions, to restart the long-stalled Six Party Talks or persuade the regime to reform its economy (along lines similar to those China has taken since the Deng-era), Beijing is now anticipating Washington formally passing the buck once again.
Currently coal is about the only major commodity North Korea is exporting — hence China’s ban on coal imports from North Korea — one of the regime’s sole legitimate sources of export earnings. This is despite the fact that its economy is prone to frequent electricity blackouts, even in the privileged enclave of central Pyongyang. For all the investment in nuclear power Pyongyang has made, none of it connects to the civilian grid, which is powered largely by coal-fired thermal plants. It is all for military purposes. China has paid for the coal received and is also the country’s largest food aid donor, effectively keeping the regime afloat and avoiding a repeat of the dreadful famines of the 1990s.
Beijing’s current thinking may be that responding to North Korea’s recent bouts of belligerency with a coal ban punishes Pyongyang more directly (i.e., right in the wallet) than the Chinese have previously been willing to do while also letting Washington know it is not afraid to get a lot tougher with an old, but frustrating, ally. Though it’s worth considering that Beijing, with its horrendous pollution problems, is itself looking to diversify away from coal-fired power, so maybe there is no great sacrifice on the Chinese part here.
Beijing’s recent policy of studiously ignoring Kim hasn’t worked. Chinese President Xi Jinping has visited locations as far flung as Fiji, Belarus and Zimbabwe but has never taken the one-hour shuttle from Beijing to Pyongyang. The coal ban then is the start of what may be a series of harsher measures that could include finally getting tough on North Korean bank accounts in China, putting limits on Chinese firms doing business in the country, restrictions on North Korean officials transiting through China, and a demand that Pyongyang rejoin the Six Party Talks or risk losing essential aid supplies.
Trump, like President Obama before him, may be right that the way to contain North Korea is through Chinese pressure. But perhaps it is the events that Trump’s ascendancy appear to have unleashed from Pyongyang that will finally force Beijing to get seriously tough with their neighbor.