Despite its financial and political support its neighbour, some question Beijing's ability to influence Pyongyang.
China may be prepared to back UN sanctions against North Korea
BEIJING // China is showing signs that it is poised to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea following Pyongyan's recent nuclear and missile tests, a sign of deterioration in the relationship between the two staunch Cold War ideological allies. China is the most critical player in terms of pressuring North Korea and the success of the hard-won sanctions, an outcome of weeks of heated debates at the United Nations Security Council, depends on its co-operation.
In 2008 some 45 per cent - US$2.79 billion (Dh10.2bn`) - of North Korea's $6.3bn in international trade was done with China, according to the latest South Korean government report. And although China never announces the amount of its aid to its impoverished neighbour, it is generally agreed to be between 30 and 50 per cent of China's entire foreign aid budget. China also provides 90 per cent of North Korea's oil and 45 per cent of its food, according to the latest report by the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul.
Previous sanctions against North Korea, such as those in 2006 meted out after Pyongyang's first nuclear test, were ineffective because China "didn't do enough", according to conservative scholars in Washington. For example, the 2006 sanctions included a ban on "luxury goods" intended to dent the lifestyle of the nation's ruling class. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, for example, has a documented record of enjoying wines imported from France and Italy. The measure didn't have the intended impact because China didn't tighten its border with North Korea, some analysts said.
China's attitude may be changing. In Beijing, a foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said China will "strictly observe" and implement UN resolution 1874, which mandates member states to inspect North Korean sea, air and land cargo and requires them to seize and destroy any goods transported in violation of the sanctions. Chinese experts, however, said Beijing's approach on the matter will be prudent.
"China will abide by it, but it doesn't mean that China will interdict all vessels that belong to North Korea," said Liu Jiangyong, an expert on East Asian security at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "That should be based on evidence and relevant intelligence which warrants such a move. Otherwise it is likely to create a clash with North Korea." Chinese and South Korean security experts meet last week in Seoul to discuss North Korea.
"It's a bit too early to form a judgment, but I got the sense that there is a great possibility for China to actually implement the sanctions this time because I see signs that I didn't see before," said Han Suk-hee, an expert on the North Korea-China relationship at Yonsei University in Seoul. Indeed, the message by the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs, a government-backed think tank staffed by retired senior diplomats and experts, at the meeting drew a great deal of interest. The Chinese said that China's relationship with South Korea was more important than the relationship with the North and that there was no alliance between North Korea and China. The Chinese experts also said that North Korean nuclear sabre-rattling is primarily driven against the US and therefore the US should do more.
The message is "a strong warning to North Korea," said Mr Han. "If North Korea's belligerence continues, China is saying that it would demand the modification of the alliance and furthermore it would even consider nullifying it." China's change is also apparent on another front. South Korea is pushing to continue multinational talks over North Korea's nuclear ambitions and if North Korea doesn't plan to participate, then Seoul proposed that at least five countries, excluding North Korea, can meet.
"As long as it works for the stability of the Korean peninsula and helps to persuade North Korea to return to the negotiation table, we can try this new format of five-way talks," said Mr Liu, noting that was his personal view, not the stance of the Chinese government. Another Chinese scholar, requesting anonymity, also said "there is such a view" within the policy advisory group on North Korean affairs.
However, not all experts agree there is a shift in China's policy or even on its ability to pressure Pyongyang. "China's influence over North Korea is grossly overestimated. Even during the Korean War when North Korean was completely dependent on China for survival, for example, North Koreans didn't want the Chinese to have control over the North Korean railroads. North Koreans have always been very difficult for the Chinese to work with," said Brian Myers, a specialist in North Korea at Dongseo University in South Korea.
"Now it's even more difficult for the Chinese to work with North Korea since it has a nuclear weapon. Besides, the North Korean regime has realised that China doesn't want it to collapse. Under these circumstances there is very little leverage for China to exercise." Liu Ming, a North Korea expert at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, agreed. "China's role is limited because it has to consider a long-term relationship with North Korea. We cannot do whatever demands the international community wants us to do about North Korea."