The Reasons Behind China’s Import Ban on North Korean Coal

By Larry Ong
Larry Ong
Larry Ong
Larry Ong is a New York-based journalist with Epoch Times. He writes about China and Hong Kong. He is also a graduate of the National University of Singapore, where he read history.
February 20, 2017 Updated: February 28, 2017

The Chinese regime recently said that it would suspend all coal imports from North Korea for a year. The move, according to analysts, could be motivated by a host of issues, including U.S.-China or China-North Korean relations, and the extension of an ongoing factional struggle in the Chinese regime.

On Feb. 18, the Chinese Commerce Ministry announced in a short statement that the Chinese regime would stop importing all North Korean coal until the end of 2017, effective from Feb. 19. The coal import suspension was made in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution that targets North Korea’s commercial trade to curb the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile program.

The Chinese regime’s move is preceded by a North Korean intermediate-range ballistic missile test on Feb. 12, and the alleged assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the older half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in an airport in Malaysia on Feb. 13.

North Korea is expected to be substantially impacted by the coal ban, at least at a glance. According to the South Korean Yonhap News Agency, coal makes up to 40 percent of North Korea’s exports to China.

But on closer examination, the Chinese regime’s move may not be as significant as it first appears. Stephan Haggard, a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington D.C., wrote in a blog post that the UN regulation cited by the regime in fact imposes a “complex cap” on coal trade with North Korea that “would have allowed China to continue to conduct coal trade with the country” rather than being a complete “coal ban.”

Because the objective of the “coal ban” is “clearly not to bring down the North Korean regime,” Haggard believes that the Chinese regime’s sanctions is really aimed at pushing Washington to negotiate with North Korea on cutting its nuclear program directly or multilaterally.

President Donald Trump told Fox News in January that the Chinese regime has “total control” over North Korea, and that the regime should rein in its communist neighbor lest the U.S. “make trade very difficult for China.” The Trump administration has yet to respond to the Chinese regime’s suspension of North Korean coal imports.

Chen Pokong, a Chinese current affairs analyst and author of books on Chinese political culture, believes that the Chinese regime’s move was more in response to the recent alleged assassination of Kim Jong-nam than with an eye to U.S.-China relations.

“Beijing is annoyed and embarrassed by [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un’s assassination of his brother,” Chen wrote in an email.

Li Tianxiao, a senior political commentator with New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD)—a sister media with Epoch Times—believes that the suspension of North Korean coal imports allows Chinese leader Xi Jinping to build better relations with the Trump administration before the leaders of both countries meet in person. Xi and Trump spoke over the telephone on Feb. 10, and are planning to “hold a meeting at an early date,” according to Chinese state mouthpiece Xinhua. 

Li also believes that the coal suspension is a form of retaliation by the Xi Jinping leadership against North Korea for both the Feb. 12 ballistic missile test and the alleged assassination of Kim Jong-nam. The assassination in particular represents a direct challenge to Xi Jinping, Li says.

“Kim Jong-nam was given security protection by the Chinese regime,” Li said, adding that the regime’s security apparatus has for decades been “in the hands of the Jiang Zemin faction.”

There are notable and well-documented ties between North Korean leaders and key Jiang lieutenants: Disgraced Chinese security czar Zhou Yongkang paid a visit to the hermit kingdom in 2010. Liu Yunshan, a member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee and another Jiang ally, visited Pyongyang in 2015.

Xi Jinping, however, hasn’t warmed up to North Korea since taking office in 2012. Xi did receive a North Korean envoy in June 2016, but has yet to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Instead, Xi has met with South Korean president Park Geun-hye and developed stronger economic relations with South Korea.

Speculation that the Chinese security detail was withdrawn from Kim in the period leading up to the murder would also suggest foul play is afoot, Li offered, though there are conflicting accounts regarding this.

If indeed there is a long-standing web of ties between Jiang’s officials and the North Korean leadership, the killing off of the brother would have been a clear way of undercutting Xi Jinping and limiting his foreign policy options in dealing with North Korea, Li Tianxiao said.

Kim Jong-nam, the brother, is understood to have been a potential pro-Chinese replacement leader should the North Korean regime collapse; by removing him from the picture, Xi Jinping’s bargaining power with the regime may be reduced.

The murder also comes amidst a highly sensitive investigation into Xiao Jianhua, a billionaire money launderer for top communist officials, most prominently those associated with Jiang Zemin.

As Li Tianxiao sees it: “The Chinese regime’s suspension of North Korean coal imports is linked with the elite political contest between the camp of Xi Jinping and the faction of Jiang Zemin.”

Larry Ong
Larry Ong is a New York-based journalist with Epoch Times. He writes about China and Hong Kong. He is also a graduate of the National University of Singapore, where he read history.