On Saturday, three days before President Trump ominously threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” his administration pulled off a genuine diplomatic success: the unanimous passage of a U.S.-penned resolution in the Security Council that hit North Korea with a heavy slate of new sanctions. The latest penalties, which ban Pyongyang’s exports of coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood, could (if fully enforced) cut North Korea’s exports by an estimated $1 billion, or a third of the regime’s total export revenue.
And happily for the Trump administration, there are some promising early signs that the Chinese will enforce the latest sanctions more strictly than past ones. As Reuters reported yesterday:
A thriving trade in seafood across the Yalu River that separates China from North Korea has dramatically slowed, traders said, although there is still nearly a month to go for a United Nations deadline to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang as punishment for its missile tests. […]
Countries have 30 days to enforce the tougher measures, which aim to choke off a third of the North’s $3 billion annual export revenue, after the isolated country persisted with two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July.
But a Reuters reporter who visited Dandong, through which about three-quarters of China’s trade with North Korea flows, was told by traders and fishermen that authorities tightened enforcement on seafood coming from North Korea on Saturday itself. […]
“It has pretty much all slowed,” said one worker at Dandong’s small Yicuomao port, adding that of the 10 or so major operators in the seafood trade only a few still continued to operate, risking fines.
Beijing’s speedy enforcement of the seafood ban hardly proves full compliance, but it does suggest a gesture of goodwill toward the Trump Administration. And China’s cooperative actions have been echoed by its official rhetoric. Speaking in Manila on Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi acknowledged that China would bear the brunt of the economic pain from the resolution, but was ready to fully enforce it nonetheless. “In order to protect the international non-proliferation system and regional peace and stability,” Wang said, “China will as before fully and strictly properly implement the entire contents of the relevant resolution.”
China’s words and deeds here indicate a more cooperative posture than recent events would suggest; Beijing and Washington have lately been at odds over the U.S. imposition of secondary sanctions on Chinese banks and President Trump’s accusations that China has not done enough to restrain its neighbor. Has China been cowed by Trump’s pressure into a more accommodating position? Or is something else at work here?
Reuters offers a clue, indicating that Beijing demanded important assurances from the U.S. before signing on to the sanctions:
China appreciated comments earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the United States does not seek to topple the North Korean government and would like dialogue with Pyongyang at some point, Wang added.
The United States does not seek regime change, the collapse of the regime, an accelerated reunification of the peninsula or an excuse to send the U.S. military into North Korea, Tillerson said.
Wang said Tillerson’s “Four Nos” promise was a positive signal.
In short, China’s cooperation on sanctions seems to rest on the conditions that the U.S. will not pursue an aggressive military approach and will soon engage in dialogue with North Korea; for that reason, the UN resolution also calls for the resumption of the suspended Six Party Talks. But President Trump’s latest rhetorical bombshell seems to contradict that understanding. And even before Trump’s threat, his administration had made clear that it won’t restart talks unless North Korea halts its missile tests, while Tillerson has given no clear timeline for when discussions might begin.
In other words, China’s expectations of talks look unlikely to be met soon; under the current circumstances, neither Pyongyang nor Washington seems inclined to come to the negotiating table. Hours after Trump’s blustery threat, North Korea publicly released a strike plan for attacking U.S. military bases on Guam, which hardly suggests it will be intimidated into negotiations. If anything, the regime may feel emboldened both by the sense that Trump is bluffing and by its own rapid technological advances: according to a major Washington Post scoop, North Korea has already produced a miniaturized, missile-ready nuclear warhead.
All of these factors point to a dangerously escalating crisis, one that is compounded by the uncertain China factor. The Chinese may be cooperating at the moment, but if no dialogue is forthcoming, and the U.S. keeps upping the ante to pressure Pyongyang, Beijing could balk and cease the vigorous enforcement of sanctions. With President Trump foretelling “fire and fury” rather than negotiations, China’s cooperation may well prove short-lived.