On North Korea, China is taking away with one hand and giving with another

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Image: Reuters/Pool
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North Korea conducts roughly 90% of its trade with China. So when the Chinese customs agency released its August trade data earlier this week, people looked closely for signs of how much pressure Beijing is really applying on Pyongyang, following the United Nations’ harshest ever economic sanctions on the rogue regime.

The official data show that China’s trade with North Korea jumped in August to its highest level since December. A closer look at the breakdown of the August trade (which was released later on Sept. 26) shows a mixed picture of the bilateral relationship. The main takeaway: while China certainly appears to be limiting trade of some products with its troublesome neighbor, it’s also trying to keep the regime afloat, as it’s simply not going to allow chaos on its doorstep.


In February, China banned imports of North Korean coal until the end of this year, in response to the UN’s earlier move in December to restrict North Korea’s coal trade. But coal shipments resumed in August when China purchased 1.6 million metric tons (1.8 million tons) of coal from North Korea, according to the data.

Last month, the UN Security Council unanimously passed new sanctions against North Korea that include a complete ban on coal exports. China’s latest purchase of North Korean coal came just before the sanctions went into effect on Sept. 5. Zhao Tong, a nuclear-policy specialist at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, read the move as China taking advantage of the window of opportunity to go a bit softer on North Korea. “China may have decided to back away from an aggressive enforcement of sanctions, and apply a degree of pressure closer to the minimum requirements stipulated by UN resolutions,” Zhao told the Wall Street Journal (paywall).

A spokesman for the Chinese commerce ministry said today (Sept. 28) that China has strictly implemented UN sanctions on North Korea, which allowed for a buffer period for the coal ban.


Meanwhile, China’s gasoline exports to North Korea in August dropped 96% from a year ago to 180 metric tons (198 tons), according to customs data. Last week, China’s commerce ministry announced (link in Chinese) that the country would ban exports of condensate and liquefied natural gas to North Korea from Sept. 23, and cap exports of refined oil products from October. The moves are in line with the latest UN sanctions, which were approved earlier this month and aim to cut overall oil supply to North Korea by an estimated 30%.


Things are very different when it comes to food. China’s corn shipments to North Korea surged 4,600% in August from a year earlier—with almost all of its corn exports going to North Korea—and wheat exports jumped more than 50 times in the same period, according to the data. The huge increase in food exports comes as North Korea suffers its worst drought in more than a decade, with tens of thousands of people facing severe food shortages, according to the UN. South Korea stopped sending aid to North Korea in response to the regime’s weapons program (though the current progressive government in Seoul recently announced it would provide $8 million in humanitarian aid to Pyongyang). China is quite literally a lifeline for North Korea.