A delicate game

China is still delivering fertilizer and food to North Korea

May 17, 2013
May 17, 2013

When dealing with its volatile and unpredictable North Korean ally, China giveth, and China taketh away. Under pressure to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Beijing closed the Kim Jong-un regime’s most important foreign bank account last week—but also quietly boosted shipments of free food and fertilizer.

The Hankyoreh, a South Korean publication, reports that Chinese authorities notified North Korea that food aid would resume just before Pyongyang’s Foreign Trade Bank account was closed, citing a diplomatic source in Beijing. Fertilizer shipments from China are arriving earlier and in greater quantities than in years past, in part to make up for what North Korea used to receive from South Korea.

China ships upwards of 100,000 tons of badly needed food aid to North Korea each year in order to maintain diplomatic influence and prevent famine and chaos along its 900-mile-long border. As US Secretary of State John Kerry put it recently, “I think it’s fair to say that without China, North Korea would collapse.” North Korea is now well into its toughest part of the year for food, which runs from April until the September harvest, and according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall) shortages have even led its ambassador to go to Mongolia for food aid.

International sanctions seem to be slowing North Korea’s nuclear programme, according to a new UN report, but doubts remain about China’s willingness to fully enforce them. That is likely to continue if China continues to publicly brandish the stick while secretly doling out carrots—not to mention the fertilizer needed to grow them.

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