China has been trying to ignore its unruly neighbor North Korea for as long as it was possible. And North Korea was more interested in talking to the US, and less to China. But Beijing might at last be changing its tune, says Paul French, author of North Korea: State of Paranoia (Asian Arguments) to the Washington Post.
Beijing’s current thinking may be that responding to North Korea’s recent bouts of belligerency with a coal ban punishes Pyongyang more directly (i.e., right in the wallet) than the Chinese have previously been willing to do while also letting Washington know it is not afraid to get a lot tougher with an old, but frustrating, ally. Though it’s worth considering that Beijing, with its horrendous pollution problems, is itself looking to diversify away from coal-fired power, so maybe there is no great sacrifice on the Chinese part here.
Beijing’s recent policy of studiously ignoring Kim hasn’t worked. Chinese President Xi Jinping has visited locations as far flung as Fiji, Belarus and Zimbabwe but has never taken the one-hour shuttle from Beijing to Pyongyang. The coal ban then is the start of what may be a series of harsher measures that could include finally getting tough on North Korean bank accounts in China, putting limits on Chinese firms doing business in the country, restrictions on North Korean officials transiting through China, and a demand that Pyongyang rejoin the Six Party Talks or risk losing essential aid supplies.
Trump, like President Obama before him, may be right that the way to contain North Korea is through Chinese pressure. But perhaps it is the events that Trump’s ascendancy appear to have unleashed from Pyongyang that will finally force Beijing to get seriously tough with their neighbor.
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