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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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  • Unelected Leader

    I don’t see evidence to believe it. The unelected regime in Beijing has been supporting the Kim regime for 65 years. They’ve been caught skirting and allowing others to skirt sanctions provisions for 10 years.
    All the unelected CCP has been doing is helping to create security dilemmas for SK and Japan, and justify more US presence and THAAD, etc.

    • Nevis07

      Even under the coal ban, China basically sent more than they were supposed to under the guise of ‘humanitarianism’. Trump would be wise to not fool for this gesture – an action that China should have been taking all along.

  • Kevin

    I think looking at China here as just a unified actor here, as some sort of master strategist pursuing a coherent national plan, is a mistake. It’s also makes sense to look at what particular Chinese or Chinese factions want, or at least consider if any have their own objectives. We would never look at some decision like this made in DC and assert it was just the US plan, we would also ask what did DOD, State, members of the NSC, important legislators or various economic interests want and how did these interactions produce the policy outcome. China’s policy making process is just as rich, and not just the product if some unified national interest.

  • Andrew Allison

    Perish the thought that China just doesn’t need the coal.

    • Disappeared4x

      China does not want the Standing Rock climate change protestors re-deploying to Chinese-owned Waldorf-Astoria on Park Ave.

      Seriously, the timing of the suspension of coal imports from NorK IS a signal, of something other than China’s commitment to Obama on climate change. Did not read the NYT article to find out, but… coal covers the bet that the dems really are going to impeach POTUS, just as soon as the dems regain control of the House.

      Win-Win. Let the NorKs eat coal. Hold the kimchi.

      • Andrew Allison

        Get real, if you can stomach kimchi, eating coal is, as it were, a piece of cake (there’re very many things to admire about Korean culture but, to my palate, kimchi is not one of them).
        Seriously, there are two issues to hand. The first is that the Chinese appear to have woken up to the fact that burning coal is not good for local atmospheric pollution (as an aside, Canada and the US should probably send China a big bill for all the Chinese CO2 which their agriculture is sequestering — it’s a carefully-concealed fact that atmospheric CO2 is lower on the East Coast than on the West, i.e. that N. America is a carbon sink. The second is that Chinese coal production far exceeds demand.
        Finally, since the Dims are not gaining but losing seats, there isn’t going to be an impeachment any time soon.

        • Disappeared4x

          Dead crabgrass is tastier than coal. And the Dems are so Dim they do not yet realize they have to control the House to impeach anyone.

          • Andrew Allison

            Have you actually tried them? I’ve never tasted either, but coal is said to be not too bad on the palate. And yes, the chances of the Dims controlling the House in the near future are approximately those of a snowflake in Hell.

          • Disappeared4x

            The Romans used charcoal for ‘food poisoning’. Works quite well, especially if accompanied by a bottle of Tequila, worm included.

          • Andrew Allison

            Not just the Romans — it’s still one of the best ways to get rid of unwanted stuff (that’s why you’re fridge, car cabin, etc., have carbon filters). Having been Californicated shortly after my arrival in SoCal just short of 50 years ago, my going away present was a three-gallon bucket, a half-gallon of Tequila, and a bag of limes — there may also have been some Triple Sec involved [grin]

  • FriendlyGoat

    If China didn’t welcome Kim being totalitarian, confrontational and nuclear, he wouldn’t be, would he?

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