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Trump’s tough talk isn’t affecting China’s relationship with North Korea

President Donald Trump’s strategy of trying to persuade China to bring North Korea into line over its weapons program doesn’t seem to be paying off — recent data shows bilateral trade between Beijing and Pyongyang is on the rise.

The increase in trade, analysts say, is the latest indication that U.S. efforts to rein in North Korea by encouraging economic pressure from China, which is overwhelmingly the Hermit Kingdom’s most significant trading partner, will ultimately bear little fruit. China, which insists on maintaining trade links with Pyongyang in areas not subject to international sanctions, will continue to tread a delicate line with its volatile neighbor, stopping short of any measures that could genuinely hurt the regime — a tactic based on China’s belief that nothing will persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program.


“It’s like asking the Catholics to stop believing in Jesus Christ.”

“In my view, they have given up trying to influence North Korea,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a senior lecturer in international relations at King’s College London. “In China there is concern, absolutely, there’s debate on what to do about North Korea — but China has realized that, whatever it does, North Korea will carry on developing these programs.”

Kerry Brown, associate fellow at Chatham House’s Asia program, agreed. “The nuclear program for the North Koreans is a sort of existential issue,” he said. “It’s like asking the Catholics to stop believing in Jesus Christ. The will is so great that unless the regime goes away, this facet of their activity won’t change.”

The White House’s increased pressure on Beijing to rein in its neighbor amid persistent escalations — including North Korea’s successful intercontinental ballistic missile test on July 4 — hasn’t translated into action when it comes to trade. Figures released by Chinese customs officials Thursday show that bilateral trade between China and North Korea hit $2.55 billion in the first six months of the year, up 10.5 percent from the same period last year.

China says it is abiding by all international sanctions on North Korea — they include materials that could be used in its nuclear and missiles programs, coal, minerals, metals, and luxury goods — and says there is nothing wrong with maintaining trade relations in areas not covered by the sanctions. “As neighbors, China and North Korea maintain normal business and trade exchanges,” Chinese customs spokesperson Huang Songping told reporters Thursday.


Doomed from the start

Such trade hasn’t sat well with Trump. Responding last Wednesday to earlier figures showing a first-quarter boost in trade between China and North Korea, he tweeted: “So much for China working with us — but we had to give it a try!”

Analysts say Trump’s strategy never had a receptive audience in Beijing, which has no real interest in curbing its bilateral trade with its neighbor because it brings benefits to both sides. The relationship accounts for the vast majority of North Korea’s total trade volume — more than 90 percent, according to one recent report. Bilateral trade between the two countries has steadily increased from less than half a billion dollars in 2000 to a peak of $6.86 billion in 2014, before dipping in 2015 and 2016.

China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tankai, said this week that the figures to which Trump was responding gave a “distorted picture” by not taking into account the recent dip. Nevertheless, the latest data show that critical trade links are again on the rise.

Pacheco Pardo said the official figures released by Chinese customs were only part of the picture, as there was also a substantial amount of illegal trade in the border regions, where it was an important economic stream on both sides of the 1,400 km (870 mile) boundary.

The U.S. is likely to keep pressuring China to squeeze Pyongyang on the issue, since it is its best non-military option, he said. “But I don’t think it’s going to lead anywhere.”


“They themselves don’t feel threatened by the program”

Neither China nor Russia, which has also increased its trade with North Korea this year, see Pyongyang’s weapons programs as a leading priority, Pardo said.

“I’ve never talked to a Chinese or Russian who has this as a top concern, as opposed to the U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula, or the possible collapse of North Korea,” he said. “The nuclear weapons program is a concern in that it gives the U.S. a reason to stay in the peninsula, but they themselves don’t feel threatened by the program.”

“The current situation is awful — the only thing worse is all the other options.”

Brown said he expected China to continue with its subtle, if ultimately ineffective, balancing act that involves sporadically applying pressure — such as the ban on North Korean coal imports introduced in February after the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother — and observing “some of” the sanctions on Pyongyang. In other words, he said, it would intermittently use its immense leverage in ways that could incrementally stall or hinder North Korea, but would stop short of anything likely to bring down the regime.

Stability on the peninsula remains its primary interest.

“China won’t go for anything that looks like it could lead to the end of the regime, because the alternatives will either be a U.S.-dominated peninsula, or a regime collapse with a colossal bill that China will have to pick up,” he said. “The current situation is awful — the only thing worse is all the other options.”