On January 5, 2018, China’s Ministry of Commerce announced its decision to impose a cap on oil supplies to North Korea and ban imports of North Korean steel. Many U.S. policymakers praised these measures as proof that China is moving toward full compliance with United Nations sanctions against North Korea and taking steps to abandon its long-standing alliance with Pyongyang.
Even though China’s relationship with North Korea under Xi Jinping has been fraught with tensions, Beijing’s partial compliance with the UN sanctions regime does not constitute a terminal breach in the China-North Korea relationship. Instead of pressuring North Korea to modify its belligerent conduct, China’s punitive measures against Pyongyang chiefly aim to reassert Beijing’s control over an increasingly unpredictable North Korean regime.
China’s strategy to re-establish its hegemony over North Korea has two main components. The first component is reminding North Korean regime officials of their country’s dependency on China. Even though China accounts for 90 percent of North Korea’s external trade, Pyongyang has become increasingly critical of China’s conduct toward North Korea. These criticisms climaxed in May 2017, when North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, claimed that China’s calls for tighter sanctions against Pyongyang were contributing to heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
As a result of its discontent with China, North Korea has pivoted strongly toward Russia as an alternative partner. In February 2017, the North Korean government named Russia as its leading international ally. Russia has also violated UN sanctions against North Korea by supplying vital raw materials to the Kim regime.
Despite the strengthening of Moscow’s ties with Pyongyang, Chinese policymakers believe that Kim Jong-un has overestimated Russia’s willingness to provide economic assistance to North Korea. By imposing economic sanctions on North Korea, China is pressuring Pyongyang to ask Russia for increased financial assistance. If Russia fails to comply with North Korea’s financial aid demands, Kim will need to improve North Korea’s relationship with China on Beijing’s terms to ensure his regime survives.
China’s belief that economic coercion will convince North Korea to settle its disputes with Beijing and become a reliable Chinese client state is rooted in historical experience. During the early 1990s, the China-North Korea alliance experienced a major rupture, after Beijing established formal diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992. In response to China’s actions, North Korea attempted to pivot toward Russia. These efforts failed as economic turmoil in Russia prevented Boris Yeltsin from providing large-scale economic aid to North Korea. North Korea was forced to grudgingly accept the reality of China-South Korea relations and by the late 1990s, China had surpassed Russia as Pyongyang’s leading trade partner.
This experience suggests that North Korea’s ability to defy China is much more limited than the Kim regime’s rhetoric would suggest. Therefore, China believes that imposing sanctions on North Korea will expedite a 1990s-style Beijing-Pyongyang rapprochement on Xi’s terms.
The second component of China’s strategy to re-establish its hegemony over North Korea is to raise the costs of aggression that undermines China’s strategic interests. Even though many Western analysts believe that China’s calls for restraint are primarily aimed at U.S. President Donald Trump, Beijing has also repeatedly condemned North Korea’s willingness to destabilize the Asia-Pacific region with ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
As China’s rhetorical condemnations of North Korea’s belligerent conduct have been largely ignored by Kim, China is using economic sanctions to convince Pyongyang to de-escalate. Using economic and diplomatic isolation as a way to punish the North Korean regime for non-compliance is inspired by China’s use of coercive diplomacy to end North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism during the 1980s.
In 1983, China suspended most of its diplomatic ties with North Korea after Pyongyang attempted to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan via a terrorist attack in Burma (today known as Mynmar). China’s refusal to support North Korea in proposed talks with South Korea and the United States over officially ending the Korean War severely weakened Pyongyang’s bargaining position relative to its southern neighbor.
Even though North Korea carried out further terrorist attacks against South Korea, like the 1987 Korean Air Flight 858 bombing, the aftermath of the attempted assassination made North Korea acutely aware of the diplomatic costs associated with terrorism. China’s condemnations of North Korean terrorist activities ultimately contributed to Pyongyang’s suspension of this policy in the late 1980s, as North Korea needed to strengthen its alliance with Beijing, to compensate for the Soviet pivot toward South Korea.
Kim’s successful defiance of Xi’s policy preferences has caused North Korean policymakers to believe that Chinese officials are so fearful of North Korea’s collapse that they are willing to let Pyongyang subvert China’s interests with impunity. To counter Kim’s belief in North Korean impunity and demonstrate China’s opposition to North Korea’s attempts to destabilize the Asia-Pacific region, Beijing has imposed sanctions against the Kim regime. The combination of these sanctions with expanded diplomatic overtures toward North Korea demonstrates that China is leaving the door open for an eventual rapprochement.
China dispatched Song Tao, the head of the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, to North Korea on November 16, in order to convince Pyongyang to respect China’s strategic interests and moderate its bellicose foreign policy. As the prospect of a complete Chinese oil embargo against North Korea looms heavily on the horizon, Beijing is operating under the assumption that North Korea will accept Chinese hegemony before drastic punitive measures take effect.
Even though China-North Korea tensions are at their highest level in decades, China’s willingness to partially comply with UN sanctions should not be taken as a sign of Beijing’s willingness to abandon its alliance with North Korea. Instead, China is using coercive diplomacy to encourage the Kim regime to comply with Chinese policy preferences and recognize China’s hegemony. If China can recapture its historic leverage over North Korea through coercive diplomacy, the Beijing-Pyongyang alliance will remain an obstacle to U.S. efforts to completely isolate North Korea for the foreseeable future.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and National Interest magazine. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.