Despite chinese sanctions enforcement, goods still crossing North Korea border

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yes, the idea of a close North Korea-China friendship is fundamentally flawed and deeply simplified. Yes, China is currently making life very difficult for those among its own citizens who are involved in business with North Korea, and for North Koreans at the other side of the business deals. And yes, China’s enforcement of sanctions against North Korea is hurting the country’s economy and the general public.

But that by no means that all ties have been cut. China’s policy on North Korea and sanctions is not a binary question of either or.

On September 26, 2017, Wall Street Journal reported that coal imports from North Korea, which went down to zero in February this year (at least in terms of what Chinese customs data reported), again went up to levels in August that looks fairly average and regular for the past year or so:

China had suspended purchases of North Korean coal in February, in response to a U.N.-set cap on Pyongyang’s coal trade set last November, part of sanctions to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Chinese coal imports from its neighbor this year remained below those limits after last month’s shipments.

Chinese customs data released Tuesday shows China accepted about 1.64 million tons of North Korean coal worth some $138.1 million in August, when the U.N. Security Council expanded sanctions to a complete halt on coal shipments and banned Pyongyang from exporting iron, lead and seafood.

China has been the sole importer of North Korean coal. Tuesday’s data shows Pyongyang earned more coal-export income in August than in either January or February, when China imported about $122.5 million and $98.1 million worth of North Korean coal, respectively.

China’s customs agency reported no North Korean coal imports between March and July.

The latest coal shipments preceded a Sept. 5 deadline for U.N. members to implement the August sanctions. Beijing said on Aug. 14 it would comply with those sanctions while continuing to process imports of banned goods until the deadline if those shipments had already reached Chinese territory.

Full article:
Before U.N. Deadline, China Again Buys North Korean Coal
Chun Han Wong
Wall Street Journal


The August 2017 numbers don’t necessarily reflect a drastic change of policy on the side of China. But one can speculate that perhaps now that tensions have lingered at a high pitch for quite some time, letting shipments through prior to the September 5th enforcement deadline is seen as less problematic.

In the trade data, we also see that China’s export of food to North Korea has surged in July. We’re currently in the so-called “lean season” when food is particularly scarce in North Korea, and with economic anxiety following the tensions of the spring and summer, the price instability on the markets has surely made access to food less certain. Wall Street Journal:

China’s agricultural exports to North Korea rose sharply in July and August, amid rising geopolitical tensions and at a time of year when the food supply in the isolated nation is usually at its lowest.

In July and August, China corn exports jumped to a total of 34,964 metric tons, nearly 100 times the levels seen in the year-earlier period. Rice exports increased 79% to 17,875 metric tons, while exports of wheat flour surged more than elevenfold to 8,383 metric tons, according to China’s Customs data.

Full article:
China’s Food Exports to North Korea Surge
Lucy Craymer
Wall Street Journal

Again, this does not necessarily imply a stark change of policy on the side of China. Rather, it is one indication among many that hopes are naive that Chinese pressure on North Korea would mean a complete cutoff of North Korea by China from the rest of the world. At the end of the day, the same old truth still holds: China desires a degree of social stability in North Korea in order to maintain peace and calm along its border and in the region overall. Food is certainly an important factor in such peace and calm, particularly in the long run.

Now, how (or if) North Korea is paying for these imports is less clear…


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