TOKYO — Is China really punishing North Korea for its repeated missile tests and its threats to the outside world?
President Trump says yes, but economists poring over the data suggest the picture is far from definitive.
“It’s not completely clear that China has quit North Korea cold turkey,” said Kent Boydston of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
China’s customs office reports that no coal was imported from North Korea in March or April. That would be consistent with the ban on all imports of coal from North Korea that Beijing announced in February, a move with the potential to inflict severe economic pain on the Kim regime in Pyongyang. Almost all of North Korea’s exports go to China, and coal makes up 40 percent of the total.
But recent visitors to the Chinese-North Korean border report seeing coal trucks and trains crossing into China, and experts are not seeing signs that a major financial lifeline has suddenly severed.
The exchange rate for North Korea’s won has been “remarkably stable,” Boydston said, as have rice prices. Both are considered key barometers in the extremely secretive country.
“It doesn’t seem like there is any sort of distress in North Korea,” he said.
At previous times of tension, China has signed up to international sanctions and taken steps to look like it is implementing them, only to ease off after a few months.
China shares a long border with North Korea and, however annoyed Beijing is with the Kim regime, does not want to see it collapse. That could send streams of refugees over the border into China and allow the American troops in South Korea to move up to the Chinese border.
But Trump, who has been urging his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to crack down on the Kim regime, last month said he had “absolute confidence that he will be trying very, very hard.”
According to China’s customs service, overall North Korean exports to China fell to $99.3 million last month, the lowest in almost three years.
However, for the first four months of the year, exports from North Korea were roughly the same as last year, at almost $600 million. This included almost two full months of coal trade at relatively high prices.
Coal exports to China in March and April were apparently zero, although Boydston suggested taking Chinese statistics with a “rock of salt.” Experts say Beijing can finagle its trade figures or categorize trade as something else to suit its political purposes.
Exports of another key commodity, iron ore, skyrocketed. They were up 10 percent from March and 159 percent from the previous year, according to the data.
North Korea’s imports have not significantly contracted. They were down between March and April but were up a whopping 32 percent to $1 billion in the first four months of this year, compared with the same period in 2016.
“North Korea is running a bigger-than-ever deficit with China,” said William Brown, a North Korean analyst who teaches at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.
How is North Korea supporting such an apparently large trade deficit? Economists are scratching their heads. It is not as though Pyongyang has access to the international financial system.
Proponents of tougher sanctions are waiting to see whether China will agree to a United Nations Security Council ban on oil shipments to North Korea.
“China has been hurting them on the earnings side and threatening to hurt them on the oil side,” Brown said. “The key thing is not the oil itself but the free oil that China provides as aid.”
China provides almost all of North Korea’s oil, sending it through pipelines, and considers cutting it off an extreme measure.
But as the missiles keep flying, Beijing has threatened that oil could be next.
“If the North makes another provocative move this month, the Chinese society will be willing to see the UNSC adopt severe restrictive measures that have never been seen before, such as restricting oil imports to the North,” the Chinese newspaper Global Times wrote in an editorial last month — three missile launches ago.
Xi is believed to have become increasingly irritated with Kim’s actions. The last missile test, on Sunday, came as Xi was hosting a summit on One Belt, One Road, his flagship foreign policy.