Pseudo Change: China’s Strategic Calculations and Policy Toward North Korea after Pyongyang’s 4th Nuclear Test


After North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January 2016, China’s response was stern enough for certain China analysts to posit that the Middle Kingdom’s approach to its Cold War ally was changing. In reality, however, China’s imports from North Korea, especially coal, a crucial mineral for the North’s income but banned by United Nations (UN) Resolution 2270, did not decrease. Politically, China also strived to maintain mutual relations with North Korea. Based on its strategic and other cost-benefit calculations, Beijing needs to maintain economic and political ties with Pyongyang and thus has no incentive to seriously observe the U.N. resolution. In this context, China is expected to virtually repeat the gestures it made in the past in dealing with the North. Under these circumstances, sanctioning North Korea through China is not considered a viable option in tackling the nuclear issue; rather, the USA and South Korea should change their policy approach toward this problem.

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  1. 1.

    The author of the article, Zhongsheng, literally translated as “the voice of the center,” is supposedly the editorial staff of the People’s Daily International Department. See [59], p. 28.

  2. 2.

    Virtually, all the coal North Korea exports is anthracite by type. Roughly speaking, the North earns about USD 1 billion by exporting the mineral, which is around a third of its overall export income. UNSC Resolution 2321 stipulates that coal exports from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to all member countries should not exceed USD 400.9 million or 7.5 million tons for 2017 and not exceed USD 53.5 million or a million tons from November 30, 2016, the date of its adoption, to December 31, 2016. See [65], article 26 (b).

  3. 3.

    See [25]. Most of North Korea’s coal is exported to China. In 2016, the North exported nearly USD 1.2 billion worth of coal to China, and this accounted for 43.6% of overall revenue from its exports to China. The Sino-North Korean trade data here and after in this paper are cited from Haiguan Xinxiwang at <> run by the China Customs Information Center, if not separately noted. Refer to [7].

  4. 4.

    The open criticism of North Korea was in stark contrast with his celebration of the Sino-South Korean free trade agreement in the same speech.

  5. 5.

    For details of the bans, see [23, 24].

  6. 6.

    For the title of the Global Times editorial, originally in Chinese, See [16].,a For other Chinese- or English-language editorials of the newspaper blaming the North for its fourth nuclear test, see [13, 14]. Speaking of the Global Times, however, it should be noted for balance that other China experts, including Michael Swaine at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, do not consider the paper an “authoritative” source: it is fundamentally commercial though affiliated with People’s Daily. See [59], pp. 28–29.

  7. 7.

    In April 2013, when Wang Yi held talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after the North’s third nuclear test, he declared principles in handling the issue: denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, its peace and stability, and solution of the issue through dialog and consultation. In January 2016, after the North’s fourth test, he repeated the same principles to Kerry and added, “Not one less is acceptable (queyi buke),” meaning that any element of the three principles should not be missed. The “entirety and completeness” emphasized by Wang in March 2016 should be interpreted as an echo of “queyi buke.” See [28].

  8. 8.

    In a short period following the announcement by the USA and South Korea, China’s Foreign Ministry officially and quickly escalated its tone against THAAD deployment from “grave concern” to “opposition” to “firm opposition” through a regular news conference. In addition, the Chinese ambassador to Seoul said bilateral relations between China and South Korea could be “destroyed instantly” due to the deployment. Wang Yi also quoted old Chinese maxims in an exclusive Reuters interview to imply that the USA was “dancing with a sword” (i.e., THAAD) to make an attempt on China’s life.

  9. 9.

    Doubts over China’s willingness to sanction North Korea were raised even at the stage of drafting the resolution. Beijing insisted that exemptions be included in the resolution. As a result, for example, Article 29 (b) of the resolution stipulated that “transactions [of coal, iron, and iron ore] that are determined to be exclusively for livelihood purposes and unrelated to generating revenue for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s nuclear or ballistic missile programs” should be allowed. See U.N. Security Council (2 March 2016). Of course, China’s own embargoes also allow an exemption for the “people’s livelihood (minsheng).”

  10. 10.

    The net increase of China’s coal imports from North Korea from February to March 2016 was 829,940 tons. Over the same period, coal imports from Russia and Australia, the second and third biggest suppliers of the mineral for China, rose 72,377 tons and decreased 62,535 tons, respectively.

  11. 11.

    Throughout 2016, China imported 22.4 million tons of coal from North Korea, up 14.6% or 2.9 million tons from 2015. This is noteworthy considering that China already upped its coal shipments from the North as much as 26.9% in 2015 on a yearly basis. In 2015, China’s economic growth rate was a mere 6.9% and its government passed new environmental laws to reduce pollution from coal; the National People’s Congress also released a plan to slash coal use by 160 million tons over the next 5 years. Under these circumstances, the annual increase of coal delivery from the North to China was so remarkable that a Reuters columnist called it China’s “political” favor to North Korea. He added that “this near doubling” in the North’s share of China’s coal market in 2015 would not be repeated in 2016 after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test. See [52]. As noted above, however, China’s overall imports of coal from the North in 2016 ended up even bigger than in 2015.

  12. 12.

    China’s purchase of North Korean items in 2016 was worth USD 2.7 billion, up 8.6% or USD 214.5 million than in 2015. And the coal imports for 2016 were worth nearly USD 1.2 billion, up 12.6% or USD 131.8 million than in 2015.

  13. 13.

    Though not discussed in this paper, China’s export of agricultural products to North Korea is another indicator that the bilateral economic relationship was normal after the North’s fourth nuclear test: in March 2016, such exports increased 53.1 and 35.2% the next month in value on a monthly basis. See [5]. In addition, luxury goods, the export of which has been banned to North Korea by the United Nations since Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006, should be also considered to better assess Beijing-Pyongyang economic ties. According to Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, China does not enforce the mandated ban on luxury goods. In her testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs a week after North Korea’s 4th nuclear test, she said North Korea had smuggled more than USD 2 billion of luxury goods from and through China between 2012 and 2014 [10]. Her argument was supported by the latest report by the U.N. Panel of Experts, which calls China as a key node of illicit trade network for the goods whose export to North Korea is banned. See [66].

  14. 14.

    Speaking of “normal relations,” in March 2013, less than a month after the North’s third nuclear test, the spokeswoman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said China and the North had “normal state-to-state relations”; this, however, was an answer to a question on how UNSC Resolution 2094 would affect bilateral relations. See [34]. Later, in May 2013, Wang Jiarui, then director of the International Department of the Communist Party of China, also repeated the same words to a delegation of South Korean legislators to describe the Sino-North Korea relationship, though the purport was that China had limited capacity to move North Korea. Refer to [19]. In March 2016, after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, Wang Yi also used the phrase “state-to-state normal relations”; unlike the statements mentioned above, it was his answer to the straightforward question of whether North Korea was China’s ally and, in this context, could be possibly translated as a signal of a changing Chinese perception of its ally. As showed below, however, the political relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang after the latter’s fourth nuclear test was warmer than expected.

  15. 15.

    Originally, Ri’s meeting with Xi was unlikely to happen, because hours before Ri’s arrival in China, North Korea fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile, and Ri emphatically defined the “byungjin” strategy aiming to concurrently achieve both economic development and nuclear build-up as the North’s permanent policy on his visit to Song. See [46].

  16. 16.

    On this occasion, Xi did not even utter “denuclearization,” judging by the fact that the Chinese Foreign Ministry as well as the Xinhua News Agency run by the State Council did not mention the term in their reports of the meeting. By comparison, when Xi and Choe Ryong-hae, then vice marshal of North Korea, held a high-level talk following the North’s third nuclear test, the ministry released a statement saying, “Xi Jinping stressed that denuclearization was a common aspiration...China has a very clear position on this issue that all parties concerned should adhere to the objective of denuclearization...China hopes they will make unremitting efforts for achieving denuclearization.” See [35].

  17. 17.

    When South Korea, along with the USA, announced the decision, China jumped to openly and straightforwardly express its fury over the plan. Right after the announcement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying, “China is strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to (qianglie buman he jianjue fandui) the deployment, which seriously impairs the strategic security interests of the countries in the region including China as well as the strategic balance of the region.” Even the Chinese Defense Ministry chimed in by saying it would watch the movements of the USA and South Korea closely and consider taking necessary measures. Meanwhile, the Chinese vice foreign minister summoned the South Korean ambassador to Beijing to protest the plan and profess China’s unquestionable willingness and capacity to defend its strategic security interests. And Wang Yi clearly reaffirmed the Chinese position by saying, “Any excuse [for the deployment] is weak (renhe de bianjie doushi changbai de)...The related parties must prudently act not to make a big mistake.” In January 2017, China “strongly urged the U.S. and South Korea to stop the process” of the THAAD deployment in a white paper. Refer to [27, 32, 33, 55].

  18. 18.

    When asked if it received a heads-up about the fifth nuclear test from North Korea, the Chinese Foreign Ministry neither confirmed nor denied it, simply saying, “no information to offer” about it. However, China is suspected of having been informed of the test in advance. Probably, knowing that the test was coming, Beijing sharply raised imports from its neighboring country in August; then, when the test was carried out in September, it cut the import level for the month to show the world that it acted against the North.

  19. 19.

    When asked to comment on China’s going over the import cap in December 2016, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson conceded nothing but excused it by saying, “Resolution 2321 should be implemented in a comprehensive and balanced manner. The resolution called for solving the issue of the Korean Peninsula through political and diplomatic means. The Chinese side has taken measures in line with the requirements of the resolution and fulfilled its own international obligation.” See [39]. In the meantime, UNSC Resolution 2321 said, “Each member state that procures coal from the DPRK shall notify the UN Sanctions Committee of the aggregate amount procured for each month no later than 30 days after the conclusion of that month, and the Committee is to make the volume publicly available on its website.” See UNSC Resolution 2321, Article 26 (b). No data for December 2016, however, were posted on the section of “Procurement of DPRK Coal by Member States” that the committee separately designed on its website, which implied that China did not report the amount to the committee. See [67].

  20. 20.

    On the reason for the complete suspension, the Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed that it was to observe related stipulations of UNSC Resolution 2321 as China’s coal imports from North Korea had approached the value ceiling laid out by the resolution. See [38]. This explanation is doubtful, however, judging by the import amount and its corresponding value publicized on the “Procurement of DPRK Coal by Member States.” Over the first 2 months of 2017, China imported 2.7 million tons of coal equal to an estimated USD 234.4 million, or 58.5% of the limit in value, based on the mean price given by U.N. experts. Another explanation given by analysts (but one repeatedly denied by the Chinese Foreign Ministry) was that China announced the suspension as a response to the death of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un; Jong-nam was reportedly a protégé of China who was assassinated by North Korean agents in Malaysia. As for the possible reasons, refer to [4, 53, 54].

  21. 21.

    This is exactly how China interprets the US deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea [60]. Fundamentally, a security dilemma is present between Washington and Beijing due to lack of mutual trust. China believes the deployment of the THAAD system or the US “rebalance in Asia” in general is a threat rather than a defensive reaction [21]. Ironically, given the circumstances, the North’s strategic importance to China can be argued to become higher because of the very cost Pyongyang inflicts on Beijing with its nuclear and missile tests, that is, incurring the forward deployment of the US missile defense system in Asia or furthering US rebalance in the region. See [75], p. 45 and [12], p. 3.

  22. 22.

    For “moral realism,” see [71].

  23. 23.

    As the provinces have seen some of China’s biggest labor strikes, maintaining an economic relationship with North Korea is significant not only for their economic development but also for domestic security [9].

  24. 24.

    See [6], p. 139. This is exactly what certain Chinese leaders fear when they are pressed to get tougher on North Korea by the USA. In their eyes, Washington seeks to drive a wedge between Beijing and Pyongyang and thus enhance US strategic advantage in East Asia [58].

  25. 25.

    For example, when the author interviewed a faculty member at Nankai University, who happens to be a student of Zhang Ruizhuag, a leading realist in China, he said North Korea would lean toward Russia if dismayed by China. Interview in Tianjin, China, on Aug. 4, 2015.

  26. 26.

    Li Jinjun, Chinese ambassador to North Korea, was the deputy department head when he was appointed to his current position in 2015. He replaced Liu Hongcai, who had Li’s old job before being dispatched to Pyongyang in 2010.

  27. 27.

    A China scholar tersely argues that the special relations between China and North Korea will not be taken over by “normal state-to-state relations,” providing that the Communist Party reigns in China. See [8], p. 240.

  28. 28.

    No instability along the border is a component of China’s “red line (hongxian),” which was officially mentioned by Wang Yi over the period of the 12th National People’s Congress in 2014. See [43].


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Research for this study was financially supported by Chungnam National University.

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Correspondence to Jih-Un Kim.

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Kim, J. Pseudo Change: China’s Strategic Calculations and Policy Toward North Korea after Pyongyang’s 4th Nuclear Test. East Asia 34, 163–178 (2017).

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  • China
  • North Korea
  • Nuclear test
  • U.N. sanctions
  • Strategic cost and benefit