nuclear weapons

How China can help avoid nuclear ‘fire and fury’ in North Korea

The most viable non-military solution to the standoff with North Korea is to get China to apply pressure. But that's not so easy.

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un are playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship.

North Korea got the world’s attention – and Trump’s – when it successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time on July 4. In response, the United Nations approved new economic sanctions against North Korea which, predictably, inspired a bellicose response from the rogue regime.

Trump threatened that further provocations will be met with “fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

In response, North Korea issued a threat of its own – missile strikes on the US territory of Guam.

With tensions escalating, it is important to be realistic about how we can get out of this mess.

In short, any non-military solution will rely on China choosing to apply its massive economic leverage over the North Korean regime. This is a point that Trump clearly recognises. In July, he tweeted that Chinese trade with North Korea “rose 40% in the first quarter,” highlighting China’s reluctance to punish North Korea for its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

While the poor quality of the data hinders a detailed analysis, Trump’s overall sentiment is correct. China has increased its trade with North Korea in recent years and done little to forestall North Korea’s nuclear ambitions besides backing the most recent round of UN sanctions. China’s foremost objective seems to be promoting greater stability from its volatile neighbor.

Yet a quick look at the data, however murky, shows just how much leverage China has, if it wishes to use it.

North Korea’s primary patron

In general, exports from one country to another can be mostly explained by the distance between them and the sizes of their markets, a pattern that holds for China and North Korea.

Geographically, they share a long border, which makes China a natural, though not inevitable, partner for trade. As a case in point, North Korea also shares a long border with South Korea, but these countries have almost no trade between them. In addition, North Korea shares a small border with Russia, with whom it has little, though ever-increasing, trade, as I discuss below.

China’s large market, proximity and – most importantly – willingness to trade with North Korea has led to a situation in which North Korea has become highly dependent on trade with what has become its primary patron. About half of North Korean exports and imports go directly to and from China and most of the rest of its trade is handled indirectly by Chinese middlemen.

North Korea’s dependence on its neighbour has grown hand-in-hand with China’s increasing economic dominance of East Asia, which gained momentum 15 years ago when China joined the World Trade Organisation. Since then, both Chinese gross domestic product as well as its annual trade with North Korea have increased nearly tenfold, to around $11 trillion and $6 billion, respectively.

North Korea imports nearly everything from China, from rubber tires to refined petroleum to pears, with no single category dominating. Meanwhile, coal constitutes about 40% of North Korean exports to China, followed by “non-knit men’s coats.”

Time to use that leverage?

However, recent events – such as the use of front companies by Chinese firms to evade sanctions imposed on North Korea and China’s reluctance to cut off energy supplies to the country – have led to some uncertainty about the extent to which China is willing to use this economic leverage to rein in North Korea’s military ambitions.

On one hand, China claims that coal imports from North Korea have recently been stopped as part of an effort to punish the regime for recent missile tests and the suspected assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. If true, this would be an important signal of China’s willingness to support US concerns about the missile program as it would represent a loss of about a third ($930 million) of North Korea’s import revenue.

However, there is evidence that coal shipments in fact never ceased. And, in any case, China may have dramatically increased its imports of iron ore from North Korea to offset the lost coal revenues.

This is consistent with the idea that China carefully considers the resources and revenue that are available to the North Korean regime at any moment and uses trade as a lever to control them. In this way, China walks a fine line between providing too many resources, and thus allowing the regime to prosper, and not enough resources, such that North Korea is in danger of collapsing. Ultimately, trade may be used as a lever to do some light scolding, but China’s overwhelming concern is preventing North Korea’s collapse.

Further evidence that China has tight control over the North Korean economy comes from a recent report from C4ADS. The research group found close, and often common, ownership ties between most of the major Chinese companies who do business with North Korea. This suggests that trade with North Korea is highly centralised and thus easily controlled.

Trucks cross Friendship Bridge from China’s Dandong, Liaoning province, to North Korea’s Sinuiju. Reuters/Thomas Peter
Trucks cross Friendship Bridge from China’s Dandong, Liaoning province, to North Korea’s Sinuiju. Reuters/Thomas Peter

Russia: North Korea’s other ‘friend’

China is not the only country that North Korea trades with, though the others currently pale in comparison. Other top export destinations include India ($97.8 million), Pakistan ($43.1 million) and Burkina Faso ($32.8 million). In terms of imports, India ($108 million), Russia ($78.3 million) and Thailand ($73.8 million) currently sell the most to North Korea.

Russia in particular may soon complicate US efforts to isolate the regime. While still small, Russian trade with North Korea increased 73% over the first two months of 2017 compared with the same period of the previous year.

But whereas China is legitimately worried that an economic crisis in North Korea could lead to a flood of refugees or all-out war, Russia likely sees engagement with North Korea in much simpler terms, namely as an additional way to gain geopolitical advantage relative to the US.

A way out?

Nearly all experts agree that there is no easy way to “solve” the North Korea problem. However, one plausible approach is to encourage South Korea and Japan to begin to develop nuclear weapons programmes of their own and to only discontinue these programmes if China takes meaningful steps to use its trade with North Korea to reign in the regime.

Threatening to introduce new nuclear powers to the world is clearly risky, however stable and peaceful South Korea and Japan currently are. But China is highly averse to having these economic and political rivals acquire nuclear capabilities, as it would threaten China’s ongoing pursuit of regional control. In short, this is a sensitive pressure point that could be used to sway the Chinese leadership.

One way or another, China must become convinced that the costs of propping up the North Korean regime through trade are higher than the costs of an increased probability that the regime will collapse.

Greg Wright, Assistant Professor of Economics, University of California, Merced.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Following a mountaineer as he reaches the summit of Mount Everest

Accounts from Vikas Dimri’s second attempt reveal the immense fortitude and strength needed to summit the Everest.

Vikas Dimri made a huge attempt last year to climb the Mount Everest. Fate had other plans. Thwarted by unfavourable weather at the last minute, he came so close and yet not close enough to say he was at the top. But that did not deter him. Vikas is back on the Everest trail now, and this time he’s sharing his experiences at every leg of the journey.

The Everest journey began from the Lukla airport, known for its dicey landing conditions. It reminded him of the failed expedition, but he still moved on to Namche Bazaar - the staging point for Everest expeditions - with a positive mind. Vikas let the wisdom of the mountains guide him as he battled doubt and memories of the previous expedition. In his words, the Everest taught him that, “To conquer our personal Everest, we need to drop all our unnecessary baggage, be it physical or mental or even emotional”.

Vikas used a ‘descent for ascent’ approach to acclimatise. In this approach, mountaineers gain altitude during the day, but descend to catch some sleep. Acclimatising to such high altitudes is crucial as the lack of adequate oxygen can cause dizziness, nausea, headache and even muscle death. As Vikas prepared to scale the riskiest part of the climb - the unstable and continuously melting Khumbhu ice fall - he pondered over his journey so far.

His brother’s diagnosis of a heart condition in his youth was a wakeup call for the rather sedentary Vikas, and that is when he started focusing on his health more. For the first time in his life, he began to appreciate the power of nutrition and experimented with different diets and supplements for their health benefits. His quest for better health also motivated him to take up hiking, marathon running, squash and, eventually, a summit of the Everest.

Back in the Himalayas, after a string of sleepless nights, Vikas and his team ascended to Camp 2 (6,500m) as planned, and then descended to Base Camp for the basic luxuries - hot shower, hot lunch and essential supplements. Back up at Camp 2, the weather played spoiler again as a jet stream - a fast-flowing, narrow air current - moved right over the mountain. Wisdom from the mountains helped Vikas maintain perspective as they were required to descend 15km to Pheriche Valley. He accepted that “strength lies not merely in chasing the big dream, but also in...accepting that things could go wrong.”

At Camp 4 (8,000m), famously known as the death zone, Vikas caught a clear glimpse of the summit – his dream standing rather tall in front of him.

It was the 18th of May 2018 and Vikas finally reached the top. The top of his Everest…the top of Mount Everest!

Watch the video below to see actual moments from Vikas’ climb.

Play

Vikas credits his strength to dedication, exercise and a healthy diet. He credits dietary supplements for helping him sustain himself in the inhuman conditions on Mount Everest. On heights like these where the oxygen supply drops to 1/3rd the levels on the ground, the body requires 3 times the regular blood volume to pump the requisite amount of oxygen. He, thus, doesn’t embark on an expedition without double checking his supplements and uses Livogen as an aid to maintain adequate amounts of iron in his blood.

Livogen is proud to have supported Vikas Dimri on his ambitious quest and salutes his spirit. To read more about the benefits of iron, see here. To read Vikas Dimri’s account of his expedition, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Livogen and not by the Scroll editorial team.