Asia's Game of Thrones
Why Is China Changing Tack on North Korea?

The relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang appears to be fraying in recent days. After North Korea’s most recent weapons test and the mysterious assassination of Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother in Malaysia, China made the surprise decision to suspend coal imports from North Korea—a move that provoked a fierce critique of China from Pyongyang’s state-run media.

The rare public spat has found analysts scrambling to discern why China is taking a tougher line on North Korea.  Financial Times collects several possible explanations:

Foremost among reasons Beijing may have chosen now to publicly punish Pyongyang is the apparent assassination of Kim Jong Nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, in Kuala Lumpur airport last week. Mr Kim had strong ties to China and reportedly lived under Chinese protection in Macau. His death came the day after North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test.

But Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says Beijing may also be seeking to placate the White House, which has criticised China for being too soft on Pyongyang.

“I think China has two objectives,” she says. “To signal to Pyongyang its irritation over the assassination of Kim Jong Nam and curry favour with the Trump administration to stabilise US-China relations in the run-up to the 19th party congress.” […]

China could also be signalling its desire for talks with the US on North Korea, by meeting US demands for a tougher approach, Chinese analysts say.

The guessing game at China’s true intentions is a reminder of how murky the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship remains; there is clearly some back-and-forth that remains inscrutable to outsiders. Nonetheless, there are several compelling explanations why Beijing is now taking a harsher line, and they are not mutually exclusive.

For one, the Chinese do seem genuinely unhappy with recent North Korean behavior, especially Kim’s assassination of a person under their protection. Both the Chinese and the North Koreans view such events through the prism of thousands of years of past experience: the Kims are a dynasty, and having a half-brother of the current king under Chinese protection is both a message and threat. By eliminating him, Kim simplified the playing field, removed a vulnerability, and demonstrated to the Chinese that he has international capabilities and is willing to use them. For Beijing, that was hardly a welcome message—and suspending coal imports could be a retaliatory reminder that Beijing has its own mechanisms to inflict pain on Pyongyang.

On the other hand, China’s coal ban also seems directed at the United States. As the New York Times notes, the move comes as former U.S. officials are preparing for upcoming talks with a North Korean delegation in New York. Unlike Obama, Trump has signaled a willingness to engage so long as China works to restrain Pyongyang. Seen in this light, China’s coal ban looks like a symmetrical move, with China stepping up pressure on its end as the U.S. edges toward talks that China has long advocated.

The coal ban is also a relatively low-cost move, since China has already imported most of its annual quota for North Korean coal allowed under UN sanctions. Suspending further imports, then, is a symbolic gesture that serves dual purposes: coming as both a warning to Pyongyang and a signal to Washington that China is ready to get tough on the North Koreans. Whether China is actually prepared to go further in pressuring Pyongyang remains to be seen.

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