Editor’s note: the following article was translated and edited from a post by popular Chinese blogger, Qiu Lin. The article discusses the implications of China’s recent suspension of crude sales to North Korea for Sino-DPRK relations and beyond.
China shipped no oil to North Korea in February 2013, according to Chinese customs data. This marks the first time it has suspended crude sales to the DPRK since early 2007*. It has still not been confirmed whether the February suspension is meant as a sanction against North Korea for conducting an underground nuclear test on February 12, though this was the case with the suspension in early 2007. Crude oil is a large part of China's on-going aid program to the DPRK—it normally supplies 30,000-50,000 tons of crude oil per month. In 2012 approximately 523,000 tons were supplied to North Korea.
So what does China's suspensions of crude oil to the DPRK mean? Observers claim it signifies that China is finally beginning to carry out the resolution adopted by the United Nations to sanction North Korea.
A long history of supporting North Korea
As everyone knows, since the Korean Armistice Agreement, China has continuously supported the DPRK, effectively "nursing it" with oil, coal and other essential resources and supplies. Of course, this relationship has been incredibly expensive for China, and despite its assistance, sometimes North Korea doesn't seem to acknowledge how much it depends on China. Yet, even when North Korea has turned "unruly", China has never stopped helping it—it's even more out of the question that it would impose economic sanctions against it.
As a result of this close relationship, China has always held a very negative attitude toward the international community for imposing tough economic sanctions against the DPRK. Prior to North Korea conducting nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, China had always tried its best to keep UN sanctions to a minimum. Similarly, following the UN resolution for tougher sanctions against North Korea after it launched a rocket in December 2012, Chinese academics were very vocal in stating that these sanctions were basically useless as a nuclear deterrent.
This time however, not only has China uncharacteristically sided with the other member states of the United Nation's Security Council, voting in favor of increased sanctions against North Korea; it has also suspended sales of crude oil to the DPRK.
Why did China suspend crude to North Korea?
Actually, China was forced to act in such a way. As everyone now knows, North Korea conducted its most recent nuclear test in the North Hamgyong Province—just 100 km from the Chinese border. In choosing a location so close to China to conduct nuclear tests, it’s clear that North Korea is trying to send a warning to China: If you, China, consort with the United States and South Korea, then I, North Korea, will come after you first.
This reminds me of the incident that occurred six years ago. In July 2006, North Korea launched three types of guided missiles into the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan: short- and medium-range Scuds as well as the long-range Taepodong-2. The short-range missiles were obviously intended to be used against China and South Korea, the medium-range against Japan, and the long-range against the United States. During this trial, both the short- and medium-range Scuds were successful, thus implying that the whole of East Asia was now within range of a North Korean nuclear threat.
This behavior was very problematic for China. Sandwiched between Japan, the United States and North Korea in the Six-Party Talks, China found it difficult to play any sort of leading role in the proceedings. And then, North Korea abruptly conducted its nuclear tests, which inevitably led the UN to adopt a new resolution to sanction it, also making it difficult for China to do anything about it by itself.
If China hadn’t supported the sanctions against the DPRK, it would damage China's image as a responsible major power, while too strict of sanctions would likely cause North Korea to do something extreme. Considering these outcomes, China decided that the best option would be to support the UN resolution, but to push for lighter sanctions so that North Korea could still "win" and the situation would remain within controllable range.
It has also become apparent this time that the United States actively wants China's help pressuring North Korea. For America, the only way to build an effective anti-North Korean alliance is if it makes a diplomatic breakthrough with China on the matter first. The US-South Korea-Japanese union has already formed—adding China to the mix can only strengthen it.
Signs of a new DPRK policy for China?
So, will China work alongside the United States and South Korea to sanction the DPRK? The answer is no.
Recently, despite the U.S. and South Korea's desire to exert strong pressure against North Korea through completely cutting off its supply routes, it seems unlikely that China will use this "last resort" to pressure the country. Even if it suspends crude sales, it's out of the question that China will take after the United States and South Korea and start treating the DPRK with complete hostility. Naturally, this will continue to be a point of contention between the three countries.
If China were to continue in this manner of reducing or stopping crude sales to the DPRK for whatever duration, North Korean industry would suffer an irreversible blow. To put it plainly, a Chinese oil embargo will directly hurt its already moribund economy, while a complete interruption of the crude oil supply would likely collapse it in about six months.
In reality, China being in favor of sanctions against North Korea is simply because it has been forced to follow suit with the other countries. As for its relations with the DPRK, they won't become hostile just because it has approved these sanctions.
North Korea is China's "burden", but it's also China's pawn. China will not team up with the U.S. and South Korea to completely take down North Korea—at least for right now—because once North Korea is out of the picture, it means that there's danger [of containment from the U.S. and its allies] sitting there right at China’s doorstep. For this reason, China will continue to use its power to prop up North Korea and use it as its pawn.
*Reuters reports that the last "no supply" month was actually February 2012
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Keywords: China suspends crude oil Sino-DPRK relations
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