Torn between options, what can China do to rein in North Korea?

Washington wants Beijing to take a tougher line on Pyongyang – including taking action against companies it says support the regime – but China doesn’t want to be seen as caving in to the US, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 10:26am

Any punitive measures by Beijing against companies allegedly ­supporting North Korea would be carefully calibrated – to push Pyongyang to stop its nuclear tests but avoid being seen as giving in to US pressure, analysts say.

Restrictions on tourists going to North Korea could also be an option after the death of an American student who was detained there, the analysts said, although China also wanted to ensure that the regime remained stable.

Beijing was dismayed at Washington’s repeated calls for China to sanction the companies, they said, even though US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said both nations agreed Chinese firms should not do business with North Korean entities in accordance with the United Nations Security Council resolution.

Wrapping up a one-day China-US security dialogue on Wednesday, Tillerson said China had “diplomatic responsibility” to exert economic pressure on Pyongyang, which had become more volatile with its repeated ­nuclear and missile tests.

Pressure is mounting on China to do more to rein in its ­reclusive neighbour. Tillerson said last week that the US expected Beijing to take action against its list of 10 bodies in China that it suspected were ­doing ­illicit business with Pyongyang. But Pyongyang has also hit back at Beijing for bowing to Washington.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the US to just give China a list of Chinese companies to punish,” said Lu Chao, director of the ­Border Study Institute at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, situated in the province that ­borders North Korea.

“If the US finds that any of the Chinese companies have violated the UN resolution, it should point out the wrongdoings so that China can take the necessary measures to punish these companies,” Lu said, adding that a gap in perceptions over the objectives of economic sanctions could lead to disappointment for the US.

As a traditional ally and Pyongyang’s largest trade partner, Beijing said it would stop buying North Korean coal, a major source of hard currency for Pyongyang, in February. It was a move Beijing said was part of its efforts to implement UN sanctions after Pyongyang launched its fifth nuclear test in September.

“It will take time to see the ­effects, which will be more and more evident according to our ­research,” Lu said. “China is working on things and I believe it is playing a big role [in curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition].”

Tensions between the US and North Korea have again escalated since the death of 22-year-old student Otto Warmbier on Monday, after he was evacuated to the US following 17 months of detention in North Korea.

Meanwhile, shortly before the China-US talks, US President Donald Trump said on Twitter he might give up hope that Beijing could exert any meaningful pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. “While I greatly appreciate the ­efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out,” he tweeted. “At least I know China tried!”

Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, said the US had more reason to press Beijing over the North Korea issues, given worldwide outrage over the brutal regime’s treatment of Warmbier.

He added that introducing a travel ban rather than stopping exports of crude oil would be more likely to be accepted by Beijing, which would prefer to preserve the status quo on the peninsula. “The US may take a series of ­retaliatory and strong measures against North Korea, and we can’t rule out the possibility that it may take unilateral action unless Pyongyang releases the other three American citizens [in detention in North Korea],” Cheng said.