Is China secretly punishing Kim Jong Un for his nuclear mischief?

Following North Korea’s latest nuclear test, in January, trade over the China-North Korea border dropped dramatically, according to newly released satellite imagery. The revelation has led experts to conclude that Beijing has been quietly punishing Kim by cutting off the flow of funds to his regime.

There’s no question that the China-North Korea relationship has been strained since Kim assumed power in 2011. Against Beijing’s wishes, the young leader has revved up North Korea’s pace of missile tests and detonated two nuclear devices, one in 2013 and then again this January. In 2013, Kim executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek, who had been China’s main contact in Pyongyang.

After the latest nuclear explosion, which Pyongyang claimed was a hydrogen bomb, Secretary of State John F. Kerry publicly called on China to end “business as usual” with North Korea. Publicly, Beijing rejected being told by the United States how to handle its client state. Behind the scenes, it appears Beijing was doing just that.

“It is apparent that shortly after North Korea did the fourth nuclear test in January, China took unilateral measures to drastically curtail trade interaction along their border,” said Victor Cha, director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.

Cha, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), led a team of researchers that procured and analyzed the new satellite imagery as part of their project Beyond Parallel, a website and database dedicated to demystifying what’s going on inside the world’s most secretive state. The project launched Thursday.

Cha’s conclusion, that Beijing decided to punish North Korea after the nuclear test but didn’t disclose that to the world, is backed up by anecdotal reports of Chinese officials telling Western interlocutors that President Xi Jinping had decided to “take action” against the Kim regime, behind the scenes, out of anger over the nuke test.

“It shows that China pursues things in their own way when it comes to North Korea, not because the U.S. or the U.N. tells them to,” said Cha. “The good news is that they are squeezing them more than we were led to expect.”

CSIS worked with imagery analysts at the commercial satellite firm DigitalGlobe to collect and examine satellite photos of several key trade-related areas on both sides of the China-North Korea border, including the Sinuiju railroad station and customs area on the North Korean side, the Dandong railroad station and customs area on the Chinese side, and the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge that links the two countries.


Satellite view of customs area in Sinuiju, North Korea, on the border with China, Jan. 2015. (Center for Strategic and International Studies/DigitalGlobe)

Satellite view of customs area in Sinuiju, North Korea, on the border with China, Feb. 2016. (Center for Strategic and International Studies/DigitalGlobe)

They compared activity at the sites year over year, first by examining imagery from January and March of 2015 and then comparing that with imagery collected this February, just after the latest nuclear test. The images showed a “substantive reduction of economic activity on the Sino-North Korean border” as evidenced by a huge drop in the number of rail cars at the stations, trucks in customs areas, trucks on the bridge and undocked boats in the Yalu River.


Satellite view of customs area in Dandong, China, on the border with North Korea, Mar. 2015. (Center for Strategic and International Studies/DigitalGlobe)

Satellite view of customs area in Dandong, China, on the border with North Korea, Feb. 2016. (Center for Strategic and International Studies/DigitalGlobe)

At the Sinuiju rail station, most of the train cars appeared to be in storage early this year, with no engines attached to the freight cars. In the Sinuiju customs area, there were 111 trucks shown in the satellite image from January 2015, but in the February 2016 image, there were only five. On the Chinese side, there were 32 trucks spotted in the Dandong customs area in March 2015, but by this February there were only six.

Official trade data regarding North Korea is notoriously unreliable, and Cha said comprehensive data on economic activity over the China-North Korea border does not really exist. But his team has been briefing U.S. and South Korean government agencies on what they found, and he said both governments have shown interest in pursuing the research.

In March, China signed on to a new United Nations Security Council resolution imposing fresh sanctions on North Korea in response to the January nuclear test, showing that Beijing was in fact upset with Kim’s actions. But the new data may show that Xi was much more upset than he let on and more than he wanted the rest of the world to know.

“The Chinese don’t feel like they need to get credit for punishing North Korea and they don’t want to be seen as [if] they are being pressured by the U.S. to do it,” said Cha.

The question going forward is whether Chinese economic pressure on North Korea, which will surely hit at Kim’s coffers, will compel the young ruler to think twice before his next dangerous provocation.