China turns the screw on North Korea with its coal ban, but will the tough restrictions last?
Donald Kirk considers how the murder of Kim Jong-nam complicates Beijing’s already strained relations with the isolated North Korean regime
The picture of a woman wearing a T-shirt inscribed with “LOL” surely offers an enduring memory of the murder of the older half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. That T-shirt has mesmerised internet surfers, to whom the demise of a lone North Korean might otherwise remain a little noted “act of terrorism” in a distant land.
The acronym LOL, or “laugh out loud”, now symbolises the killing of 45-year-old Kim Jong-nam for which the North Koreans are widely believed responsible. The Chinese are showing their outrage over the assassination – and North Korea’s test of a new mid-range missile – in their startling refusal to accept more coal imports from the North at least until the end of this year.
China appears determined to maintain this harsh restriction – in line with UN sanctions but more emphatic than expected – despite the risks to the North Korean regime. Although China has often emphasised the need for “stability” on the Korean peninsula, it is clearly fed up with Kim Jong-un’s nuclear-and-missile programme, amid a non-stop purge of his enemies, but will it really risk the calamity that might befall his regime if he no longer has the financial resources to maintain control?
It’s always possible to gloss over the wave of killings inflicted on Kim Jong-un’s domestic foes, but the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, his half-brother, was an outrage that China could not ignore. His killing was a direct challenge to the Chinese, who had been protecting him, his second wife and his son and daughter in Macau against repeated attempts – presumably on orders from Jong-un, 12 years his junior – to get rid of one seen as a threat.
The Chinese, to be sure, could not have seriously contemplated a show of force, or a staged uprising in which the older half-brother would replace the younger in the seat of power in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong-nam, once a potential heir to their late father, Kim Jong-il, had long since fallen from grace after Japanese immigration officials stopped him attempting to enter Japan on a fake Dominican Republic passport 16 years ago. Sorry, but his claim that he wanted to take his young son to Tokyo Disneyland was no excuse.
Still, the existence of Kim Jong-nam, the son of an actress who died in Moscow in 2002, was a constant reminder that China might favour him despite his reputation as a playboy and a gambler, whose first wife and child live near Beijing.
The fact that Jong-nam had granted interviews saying he doubted if his brother would last long in power and that he didn’t approve of “dynastic rule” was reason enough for his kid brother to hate him.
The left-of-centre South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh Shinmun was right when it said the assassination was “likely to become another serious burden” on China’s relations with North Korea, even though China had said the facts “need to be confirmed first”. By now, the Chinese know enough to come down hard on the North Koreans where it hurts the most, on imports of North Korean coal. Some 42 per cent of Korean coal exports go to China, which is by far its largest trading partner.
But is there any chance China will be able to compel North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme, including its quest for the means to attach a small warhead to an intercontinental ballistic missile?
Donald Trump, during his campaign for the American presidency, said China could order a halt to North Korea’s nuclear programme any time, but it’s not that easy. Kim Jong-un is so committed to nukes and missiles, as was his father, that he may well put on a show of defiance towards the giant country that remains the North’s only ally.
Even if he stubbornly adheres to his stated desire to be able to order the destruction of targets in the US, however, Kim Jong-un has to be worried. Did the news that China had just turned back a large shipment of coal explain why he was scowling at lavish observances in Pyongyang marking the 75th anniversary of his late father’s birth?
The real question, though, is whether China will maintain such tough restrictions. In recent years, Beijing has seemingly approved UN sanctions while Chinese and North Korean traders have gone right on doing business across their common border. China, still the source of all North Korea’s oil and half its food, had previously held out against stopping the coal imports needed for the North’s survival.
Much will depend on the evolution of China-US relations. China has objected mightily to the US plan to install, inside South Korea, a THAAD anti-missile battery capable theoretically of shooting down an enemy missile 150km above the Earth’s surface. Over US disclaimers, the Chinese insist THAAD, or Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence, could just as well be aimed at China as at a North Korean missile.
The Chinese will also be watching warily to see if President Trump will make good on his campaign vows to combat China’s overwhelming trade surplus with the US by imposing protective tariffs. Does Trump himself know how, or if, he will live up to his bold words?
The sequence from the North Korean missile test and the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, to the suspension of North Korean coal imports, opens a new act in the drama of China’s role on the Korean peninsula. In a contest for regional power and influence, the denouement remains a mystery.
Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea