Don’t Believe the Hype: China’s North Korea Policy is All Smoke and Mirrors


As long as U.S. policy toward North Korea relies on coercive pressure, China will always be working at cross-purposes with it. The idea that North Korea is “China’s problem,” or that the path to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula runs through China, is a dangerous fallacy.

Social media is abuzz with news that China’s Ministry of Commerce announced it will suspend coal imports from North Korea as part of U.N. Security Council sanctions enforcement for the North’s most recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests in violation of prior Security Council resolutions. So China is finally standing arm-in-arm with the United States and international community to actually do something about North Korea. That’s great, right? Wrong.

China’s suspension of coal imports is smoke and mirrors; an act of geopolitical misdirection. The United States is being played, as it has in the numerous past instances when China supported sanctions resolutions against North Korea at the United Nations only to fail to implement them. China allows exporters crossing the border from North Korea into China to “self verify” compliance with sanctions.

This amounts to China saying one thing and doing another. Chinese businesses operating in North Korea will continue to do so, which alleviates a good deal of the pain the United States intended when it pushed for sanctions. In geopolitical terms, China is optimizing its regional position at the expense of the United States and its allies. China can claim to be a good citizen of the international community by supporting and enforcing sanctions. It garners goodwill from China-watchers in the United States who see North Korea as an issue where Chinese and U.S. interests converge. Yet it avoids taking actions that would put real pressure on Kim Jong Un’s regime. China, in other words, placates the United States while helping keep North Korea stable. Win-win, for both of China’s faces.

It is true that China loathes North Korea and vice versa­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ — at the societal level, the leadership level, and the governmental level. As I discuss in the latest episode of the War on the Rocks podcast, the old adage that China and North Korea are “as close as lips and teeth” was always cleverer than it was true.

But China’s “emotions” toward North Korea don’t drive its policy. China has a long tradition of paying lip service toward cooperation with the United States and the international community while largely failing to apply any meaningful pressure on North Korea, and for good reason: It doesn’t want a nuclear-armed neighbor on its border to become a nuclear-armed enemy. We ignore China’s enduring strategic interests in North Korea at our peril.


Dr. Van Jackson is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks and host of the Pacific Pundit podcast series, available on your favorite podcast app.  He is also an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, and author of the book Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US-North Korea Relations.  The views expressed are his own.  Find him on Twitter at @WonkVJ.

Image: Nicor, CC