China Appears To Be Putting More Pressure On North Korea
There’s been a definite shift in the rhetoric coming out of Washington and Beijing regarding North Korea, but it’s not clear if this means a change in substance:
BEIJING — China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and President Trump spoke by phone on Wednesday about the escalating tensions with North Korea as a prominent Chinese state-run newspaper warned the North that it faced a cutoff of vital oil supplies if it dared test a nuclear weapon.
The phone call, reported by China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, came hours after Mr. Trump cautioned Beijing in a Twitter message and a television interview that it needed to help Washington rein in North Korea, a Chinese ally. During the call, which was initiated by Mr. Trump, Mr. Xi said that the matter should be solved through peaceful means, the state news agency Xinhua reported.
Tensions escalated further on Wednesday as reports said the Japanese Navy would join the United States Navy strike group led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in its mission off the Korean coast. Those joint exercises would take place as the American armada passed through waters close to Japan, Reuters said.
The Carl Vinson and several other warships are heading toward the Korean Peninsula in a show of force intended to deter the North from testing a sixth nuclear weapon or launching missiles.
American television networks and some newspapers have been invited to report on a military show in the capital, Pyongyang, this weekend.
In an unusually strong editorial, Global Times, a newspaper that sometimes reflects the thinking of China’s leadership, said Beijing would support stiffer United Nations sanctions, including “strictly limiting” oil exports to North Korea should it conduct a nuclear test.
The editorial, indicating nervousness about what the North might do on Saturday, said that the peninsula was the closest to “military clashes” since 2006.
“China, too, can no longer stand the continuous escalation of the North Korean nuclear issue at its doorstep,” the editorial said. “Instead of accepting a situation that continues to worsen, putting an end to this is more in line with the wish of the Chinese public.”
The newspaper called on Pyongyang to avoid a “head-on collision” with Mr. Trump by suspending its provocative activities. If the North Korean regime did not restrain itself and made “a huge mistake, it may be difficult to have another chance to correct its strategy.”
North Korea is almost entirely dependent on China for its oil, and a loss of its supplies would cripple the noticeable economic growth in the country over the last few years.
Global Times also reminded North Korea that Mr. Trump had ordered missile strikes against Syria, an attack that occurred during Mr. Xi’s visit to Florida less than a week ago. Mr. Trump has promised in interviews that he is willing to take unilateral action against North Korea if necessary, although he has not specified what he would do.
“Not only is Washington brimming with confidence and arrogance following the missile attacks on Syria, but Trump is also willing to be regarded as a man who honors his promises,” Global Times wrote.
The two leaders discussed North Korea during their meeting at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, but little progress appears to have been made.
After the talks, administration officials said that Mr. Xi did not offer substantially new measures, including stiffer sanctions, to penalize North Korea’s behavior.
In what may be the most significant news, Reuters and several other news agencies are reporting that a group of ships carrying coal from North Korea to China have been ordered to return with their shipments, seemingly indicating that China was rejecting the shipment:
A fleet of North Korean cargo ships is heading home to the port of Nampo, the majority of it fully laden, after China ordered its trading companies to return coal from the isolated country, shipping data shows.
Following repeated missile tests that drew international criticism, China banned all imports of North Korean coal on Feb. 26, cutting off the country’s most important export product.
To curb coal traffic between the two countries, China’s customs department issued an official order on April 7 telling trading companies to return their North Korean coal cargoes, said three trading sources with direct knowledge of the order.
Shipping data on Thomson Reuters Eikon, a financial information and analytics platform, shows a dozen cargo ships on their way to North Korea’s main west coast port of Nampo, almost all carrying cargoes from China.
Chinese authorities did not respond to requests for official comment.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping were discussing North Korea at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort on April 7.
The Trump administration has been pressuring China to do more to rein in North Korea, which sends the vast majority of its exports to its giant neighbor across the Yellow Sea.
But U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said last week’s U.S. military strike against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons was a warning to other countries, including North Korea, that “a response is likely” if they pose a danger.
Given the fact that China is among the most energy-hungry in the world, the fact that it would turn back what sounds like a fairly large shipment of North Korea coal, for which it has been the DPRK’s sole major customer for some time now due to international sanctions, is not an insignificant move and it marks what seems to be a decided change from more recent policy out of Beijing, which has mostly limited itself to mild criticism of the Kim regime. If this is a sea change, it could prove to be a real problem for the North Koreans since trade with China is the regime’s only real source of hard currency at this point, and it’s only major customer for North Korean coal, which is one of the nation’s only major exports. There are also reports that China has significantly increased its military presence along the border with North Korea, although it’s rather unlikely that the Chinese would actually invade the DPRK absent some provocation such as the imminent collapse of the regime that would threaten to send refugees fleeing north and across the Yalu River.
All of this comes, of course, at the same time, we’re seeing an increase in American interest in what’s going on in North Korea and signs of a more confrontational approach to the Kim regime than we’ve seen from past Administrations. As I noted over the weekend, the United States is in the process of moving the USS Carl Vinson and its battle group into an area near the Korean Peninsula, a move which required the cancellation of previously scheduled leave for the group in Australia that has caused many to take notice. Additionally, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the recent American airstrikes against Syria should be seen as a message to other nations, specifically including North Korea. More recently, Tillerson said during an appearance on Face The Nation on Sunday that the United States and China had agreed that recent North Korean actions had reached a point where further action in response to provocation would require some kind of response by the nations in the region and around the world. Whether the most recent actions on the part of Beijing are a result of those talks between President Trump and Chinese President Xi is unclear, but it does seem as though China has decided to increase pressure on Pyongyang. Whether the North Koreans listen is another question entirely.