China recently made a big show of rejecting North Korean coal cargoes, raising hope that Beijing is finally using its economic clout to get tough on Pyongyang. New trade numbers released yesterday, however, tell a different story. New York Times:
The data released on Thursday showed that China’s trade with North Korea grew 37.4 percent in the first quarter of this year from the period in 2016. Chinese exports surged 54.5 percent, and imports increased 18.4 percent, the General Administration of Customs said at a news conference in Beijing. […]
China reported that its imports of North Korean iron were up 270 percent in January and February compared with the period in 2016.
These numbers confirm what we suspected about China’s dramatic coal gesture: the move was a symbolic rebuke to Pyongyang and a savvy goodwill gesture to Trump, but it hardly put a dent in the bilateral trade relationship. Trump has made it clear that he wants the Chinese to tighten the economic screws on North Korea, but so far they have not pulled many of the economic levers at their disposal—and in fact, many Chinese firms are actively enabling the North Koreans’ nuclear program by illegally exporting technology and hardware, while Chinese authorities look the other way.
To be fair, there have been some recent signs that Beijing might take more serious action. According to a recent editorial in the state-run Global Times, Beijing could be willing to restrict oil exports to North Korea if Pyongyang launches another nuclear provocation this month. That would indicate a real willingness to play economic hardball, and a long-term oil embargo would have devastating consequences for the North Korean economy.
Until that happens, though, any claims from Beijing that it is putting the economic squeeze on Pyongyang should be treated with extreme skepticism.