China’s Global Times concedes that the suspension of North Korean coal imports until 2018, plus a ban on many Chinese exports to North Korea, is “unprecedented.”
However, the Communist Party paper insists it is “ludicrous” to suggest the action was taken because North Korea assassinated dictator Kim Jong-un’s brother in Malaysia.
Instead, a Global Times op-ed insists China is part of the international effort to reign in Pyongyang’s nuclear program:
About 40 percent of North Korea’s foreign currency is said to be earned from coal exports to China. Therefore, China’s latest decision is considered very powerful. Coming after the death of Kim Jong-nam, some Western analysts hold it is “a response to the assassination incident.” Scholars interviewed by the Global Times all agreed that the speculation is ludicrous. For one thing, there is still no conclusion about who is responsible for Kim’s death. For another, Kim Jong-nam as a “political card” of Beijing doesn’t conform to the logic of contemporary Chinese diplomacy.
China’s decision to cease coal imports from North Korea demonstrates that the international community has moved closer in sanctioning Pyongyang, which will find it much more difficult to break sanctions by creating confrontations among big powers. The international community will never allow North Korea to possess nuclear weapons. Pyongyang should be conscious of this reality.
Pyongyang so far has displayed a confrontational stance that it would not abandon its nuclear weapons in any eventuality. The sharp confrontation will last and all parties involved will suffer losses. Obviously, North Korea will suffer the most.
The Global Times goes on to portray the sanctions as China acting in North Korea’s best interests, dismissing the North Korean nuclear program as a silly waste of time and money that will eventually give the menacing bullies of America and South Korea an excuse to attack.
Oddly, the editorial insists that history has proven nuclear weapons are useless as a deterrent against powerful enemies with strong conventional military forces, applauding Ukraine and Kazakhstan for abandoning their programs because “they realized nuclear weapons are of no use to them.” That argument might not play well in certain parts of Ukraine these days.
The odds of convincing Kim Jong-un to stop plowing North Korea’s scarce resources into his nuclear program are pretty slim, but the Global Times is more interested in downplaying how seriously Beijing takes the latest antics from Pyongyang. China’s coal ban on North Korea marked the very sudden reversal of a policy the rest of the world has been pressuring them to abandon for decades. How big a role Kim Jong-nam’s murder played in the decision is a matter of much debate, but it has a distinct “last straw” feel about it.
NPR posted speculation on Monday that China has been looking for an excuse to cut ties with the Kim regime for a long time, and the assassination in Malaysia was both wanton and insulting enough to give Beijing the opportunity it desired.
The New York Times floats another interesting theory: China is effectively dumping North Korea in President Trump’s lap. Alternatively, the same article wonders if Beijing’s sanctions against North Korea were intended to spook the Trump administration out of granting visas to North Korean officials for an unofficial meeting in New York because China does not want Trump dealing more closely with the Kim regime.
The Times also airs concerns from observers such as Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute in California that North Korea is now more dangerous than ever, between rising tensions on the peninsula and China’s new sanctions. A major joint military exercise between U.S. forces and South Korea, expected to include everything from an aircraft carrier to stealth bombers, is coming up in March. North Korea always complains about such exercises as preludes to war, or maybe even actual invasions disguised as mere military exercises. Hayes suggested scaling down the March exercise to “avoid inadvertent clashes and escalation to nuclear war, and to probe North Korean intentions.”
Another interesting tidbit from the NYT comes from Zhang Liangui, a Chinese expert on North Korea, who notes that China has already imported nearly its entire annual quota of coal from North Korea for 2017, per existing United Nations sanctions. In Zhang’s view, the sanctions announced on North Korean coal are not “as huge as many expected,” although a lingering question is whether China has paid for the North Korean coal it imported over the past six weeks.
From this perspective, Beijing’s sanctions on North Korea could be anything from a relatively mild disciplinary measure to a theatrical performance intended to convince the world China and North Korea are more estranged than they truly are.