Can Sanctions on North Korea Prevent Conflict with China?

Braxton Clark is a research associate for the NCPA:

“At a time of increased Chinese militarization in the South China Sea, as well as an onslaught of government-sponsored cyber-attacks against American businesses and government, a door seems to be opening to improved Sino-American relations. China has been a staunch ally of North Korea for over 60 years, having provided the regime with decades of economic, military and humanitarian assistance. But China is now reevaluating its position towards both North Korea and South Korea.

North Korea has recently stepped up frequency of its missile tests, including those with the suspected capability of hitting American installations on Guam. And in expected style, these tests have utterly failed with one missile detonating immediately after launch. The constant antagonizing, the unpredictability and the fragility of the North Korean economy has driven a rift between it and China.

China has been slowly distancing itself from North Korea for some time due to its uncontrollable nature. The most overt example of this development came when China adopted and backed U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270 ‒‒ a resolution that includes Chinese cooperation on sanctions. These sanctions focus on the sale of jet fuel and the import of coal, which totals over 40 percent of DPRK trade. China’s participation in sanctions of this level is completely unprecedented.

Joining the sanctions signals a serious change in strategy for several reasons. First, according to the Congressional Research Service, China accounts for over 70 percent of North Korea’s trade. The trade relationship has generated billions of dollars for both nations. Therefore, any significant sanctions would theoretically hurt the Chinese economy. Although the Chinese economy is worth over $17 trillion, sanctions on North Korea would hurt merchants, companies and channels of commerce along their shared border.

Secondly, sanctions undermine an otherwise long history of Chinese support for North Korea. Since the Korean War started in 1950, China has provided arms, troops and supplies to their troublesome neighbor. In fact, during times of crisis, China has been the North’s number one supplier of humanitarian aid. Sanctions have suddenly brought decades of support into question.

To add insult to injury, China has decreased its cooperation with North Korea, while simultaneously furthering cooperation with South Korea. The Former President of South Korea Roh Tae-woo (1988-1993) introduced the doctrine of Nordpolitik, which aimed to repair relationships with northern powers, such as the USSR and China. He hoped working with the Chinese would isolate the North from its sole ally. Ever since China recognized South Korea as a state in 1992, they have worked towards building a functional relationship with one another. A 2014 BBC public perceptions poll found that people within South Korea and China are viewing each other with higher favorability annually. The report also determined that 40 percent of Chinese view South Koreans positively, only 32 percent view them negatively. Additionally, free trade agreements have established China as South Korea’s top trading partner. This shift, by extension, could improve China-U.S. relations.

The sanctions might provide a bridge to cross the growing divide between the two superpowers. And China seems ready to accept Western influence in the region, even if it comes in the form of South Korean soft power.”

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