Since World War II, North Korea and China have maintained amicable relations, largely working together economically and politically. China’s national newspaper, the People’s Daily, consistently praises the North, and North Korean state media never speaks poorly of China. Recently, however, cracks have emerged in their relationship. North Korea has disregarded the United Nations Security Council’s efforts curtail the nation’s development of nuclear weapons. Despite UN resolutions that forbid North Korea from developing nuclear weapons technologies, the nation recently test-fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan on February 5. China historically has supported the North’s economy by purchasing the bulk of its coal exports, but this past week, in an unprecedented action, China suspended all coal imports from North Korea until the end of the year.
Securing Chinese cooperation with the rest of the UN Security Council is key in enforcing penalties against North Korea. Until these actions, coal production accounted for up to 40 percent of the North Korean economy, with China being the principal customer. In November 2016, the UN Security Council tightened sanctions against North Korea in a further effort to suffocate its nuclear program. The resolution limited the North to coal exports of 7.5 million metric tons per year or a value of $400 million, whichever came first. China agreed to impose these penalties, apparently judging this action would not upend the North Korean economy sufficiently to cause social unrest and ensuing waves of refugees into China, an outcome Beijing fears most. While China strongly opposes the North’s nuclear weapon development, this threat of a refugee influx has quelled its desire to impose harsh penalties on the country.
China’s recent suspension of coal imports represents the beginning of a new chapter in its relationship with North Korea. Analysts report the bond the two countries have shared since their Communist leaders once fought alongside each other is deteriorating, driven by North Korea’s dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons and continuing pressure from the United States and other UN member states to curb trade with the country.
Others speculate an entirely different spark was behind China’s suspension. On February 13, Kim Jong-nam, the older brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The first-born son of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-nam was originally expected to be the leader of North Korea but fell out of favor with his father in the early 2000s and went into exile in Macau. With Kim Jong-un’s 2013 execution of Jang Song-thaek, the North’s second in command and Kim Jong-nam’s staunchest supporter, Kim Jong-nam’s threat to Kim Jong-un virtually disappeared.
Despite his relative lack of power, Kim Jong-nam vocally criticized North Korean leadership in his exile. In 2010, he announced his opposition to Kim Jong-il’s decision to pass the country’s leadership on to a third generation. In a book published in Japan, Kim Jong-nam predicted North Korea would collapse without economic reform. Under North Korean law, these words could be considered treason and punishable by death.
In the Malaysian capital’s airport, two women, Doan Thi Huong and Siti Aisyah, attacked Kim Jong-nam, rubbing his face with deadly VX nerve agent that killed him within fifteen minutes. Both South Korea and Malaysia have accused the North Korean government of orchestrating the assassination, a claim North Korea strongly denies. Feeding into the intrigue is the unusual nature Huong and Aisyah, who are by no means traditional assassins. During the attack, Huong was wearing a white shirt with “LOL” printed on the front, and Aisyah claims she thought she was participating in a TV prank.
If North Korea backed the assassination as many suspect, the usage of the VX nerve agent serves as a reminder that nuclear weapons are not the only cause for concern about North Korea. The VX agent was banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, yet North Korea continues to accumulate it and stockpile other banned chemical and biological weapons. China likely sees its usage against Mr. Kim as an insult, as the country has protected him for years in Macau, and likely a reason behind their decision to suspend coal imports from North Korea.
North Korea’s response to China’s coal suspension diverged from its tradition of polite rhetoric with the country. North Korea accused China of being a “mean neighbor” and of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” The North maintained a defiant tone in the face of the suspension, declaring it to be “utterly childish” to think that it would stop building its “nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic rockets if a few pennies of money is cut off.”
North Korea’s steadfast commitment to becoming a nuclear state indicates it is virtually inevitable the nation will reach this milestone one day. U.S. officials have called upon China to use its leverage with North Korea to curtail its nuclear weapon development, despite China’s expressed inability to do so. For some analysts, China has no choice but to accept North Korea as a nuclear state. Even considering sanctions and penalties against the North, China faces two frightening alternatives: either a nuclear North Korea that is friendly to China or a nuclear North Korea that is unfriendly.