China Appears To Be Putting More Pressure On North Korea

Has China finally had enough of North Korea?

Kim Jong Un North Korean Flag

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.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. grumpy realist says:

    Put this in the “omigod the US nut might actually attack North Korea so we better put some pressure on our North Korean nut!” category.

    I’m wondering if China is also realizing that the present Dear Leader of North Korea is, in fact, liable to do something like nuking Seoul anyway down the line…..

  2. MarkedMan says:

    One thing I’ve never really understood about China’s stance: NK Nukes have a heck of a shorter journey to Beijing than Washington DC. Why did China allow NK to become nuclear capable in the first place? I have not idea how this will end, but a Chinese invasion of NK seems more likely than a US one.

  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    This is like the fifth or sixth time now that “China has finally lost patience with NK”. Each time it was just a few symbolic gestures as a delaying tactic with no meaningful long term change.

    I’ll believe it when I see it.

  4. Eric Florack says:

    Clearly one of the purposes the tomahawks being sent to Syria is that reaction is going to be a lot faster in coming from these United States. It’s no accident that that situation occurred while the Chinese president was here in the states.

    One thing the current situation shows is the abject failure that was Obama foreign policy in that area.

    The message has been sent apparently either you get that little gargoyle under control or we will.

    And yes, I agree that some sort of military intervention on the part of China in North Korea is more probable than US military involvement. Hopefully for the sake of the people of North Korea it will be sooner rather than later.

  5. teve tory says:

    “we’re not going into Syria”

    apparently Trump doesn’t know we already have hundreds of troops in Syria.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    This is like the fifth or sixth time now that “China has finally lost patience with NK”.

    It is kinda like killing the #2 guy in Al Qaeda or ISIS.

  7. Joe Gage says:

    Let’s see how serious China really is by actually enforcing UN sanctions instead of allowing North Korea to continue to use Chinese front companies to access the international banking system. The Reconnaissance General Bureau runs a number of these front companies that allow the DPK to evade UN sanctions.

    As for regime change, the most likely scenario is a military junta. The US could obviously benefit from Chinese assistance in minimizing casualties in a bloodless coup. I believe at this point that
    peace and stability, as well as continued trade in the Peninsula is paramount to China. Xi and Kim have never met and don’t have much of a relationship which shouldn’t be dismissed in any analysis of the situation. The US will also have to balance China’s valid border concerns if the North Korean government implodes.

  8. Slugger says:

    I looked at the Korea Herald (english version) this morning. They fear that US military action against NoK will elicit a major military response by them since Kim is not a rational, calm leader. They doubt that China would intervene militarily against the North.
    I am concerned that our leader and their leader may act impulsively because both of them project being concerned by macho face saving rather than go along, get along type of philosophies. I like to think that the advantages of peaceable conduct are apparent to any world leader, but I know that the killing of a minor prince by a nutty nationalist led to thirty million dead in my grandfather’s time.

  9. Franklin says:

    @Eric Florack: Despite the baseless Obama remark, your comment achieved the unthinkable: upvotes.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    @Eric Florack:

    One thing the current situation shows is the abject failure that was Obama foreign policy in that area.

    North Korea went nuclear on George W. Bush’s watch. That set the stage for everything that has followed.

  11. TM01 says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Whose foundation was built by Bill Clinton, with help of Useless Idiot Jimmy Carter.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    You know, there’s an alternate explanation for China massing troops: maybe they mean to defend NK if it comes to that. I don’t think that’s what’s happening, but it is worth mentioning. The last time we decided to roll up NK the Chinese were decidedly unhappy about it.

    We’ll either see a NK nuke test or missile launch, or we won’t. If we don’t then fat Kim will have lost face and will be weakened. Enough to bring on a coup? Don’t know. If there’s a coup then those Chinese troops may be there to stop things going all civil war. If there’s a coup and Kim isn’t eliminated quickly, can he still order attacks on Seoul or US troops or Japan?

    Someone is in command of NK artillery on the border. Is that general with Kim or would he join a coup? Ditto whoever is running the nuclear program. If Kim feels the walls closing in will he submit? Can he?

    All this speculation would be much more fun if I didn’t live on the west coast.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    Oh? How so? Kim the Middle went nuclear in 2006, which is six years into George W. Bush. Six years.

    The foundation was ‘axis of evil’ if anything. Bush united Iraq, Iran and North Korea then invaded and overthrew the government of Iraq, sending a pretty clear message that if we thought we could take you down, we would.

  14. Eric Florack says:

    @michael reynolds: that’s beside the point. Is increasing belligerency occurred on Obama’s watch. Because Obama let him get away with it.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Oh, bullshit. “Increased belligerency?” You mean like, exploding a nuke six years into Bush’s term? The Kims have always been belligerent, when they aren’t shooting off nukes they’re seizing ships and kidnapping people and assassinating family members. Join reality, you’ll embarrass yourself less.

  16. Sleeping Dog says:

    I believe that Henry Kissinger in referring to Nixon and relations with the Soviet Union, commented to the effect that having your opponent think your a bit crazy and won’t respond in a rational manor is to your advantage. In the past it has been the leadership of the NK who has been unpredictable vs. the world, but now Trump needs to also be considered as an unpredictable variable.

    Why is China massing troops on the NK border, many possible reasons, prevent a mass exodus on the part of NK’rs if the regime collapses, defend against a US invasion or occupy the country in the case of collapse. Or as preparation for one these yet to be determined contingencies.

    Change is occurring on the Korean Peninsular and no one can predict the outcome.

  17. teve tory says:

    He said they hit it off during their first discussion. Mr. Trump said he told his Chinese counterpart he believed Beijing could easily take care of the North Korea threat. Mr. Xi then explained the history of China and Korea, Mr. Trump said.

    “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Mr. Trump recounted. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea,” he said. “But it’s not what you would think.”

    God trump is a moron.

  18. An Interested Party says:

    Clearly one of the purposes the tomahawks being sent to Syria is that reaction is going to be a lot faster in coming from these United States. It’s no accident that that situation occurred while the Chinese president was here in the states.

    Oh, so you’re saying that you were impressed with Trump’s meaningless temper tantrum lobbed at a Syrian airfield that was up and running a short time later…I doubt that anyone in China or North Korea was impressed or even ever so slightly intimidated by that little show…

  19. Tyrell says:

    Everyone is tired, and wary of the antics and actions of Kim Jong. I am not sure if he is beyond the point of any type of reasoning, understanding, logic, and making deals. I think it would be worth a try to send some people over there to have some sit down chats with some Kentucky bourbon and good cigars thrown in. Try to cool things off and back the train up some. He might be interested in some attractive incentives: American cars, internet, tv networks, medical care, restaurants, engineering, even some engineering help. Maybe even arrange a visit to the US. Get an up close feel for his current thinking and psychological state.
    “What would it take to get you to close down your nuclear program starting today ?”

  20. ...Ig'nint... says:

    @Tyrell: There is no answer to that question. The Kim’s are not interested in closing down their nuclear program and have been telling the 6-nation group that for roughly 7 years now.

  21. Tyrell says:

    @…Ig’nint…: Unfortunately that is true.