China said Thursday that it supports further punitive United Nations action against North Korea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged the UN to take “necessary measures” in response to North Korea’s test of a possible thermonuclear weapon Sunday, according to Reuters. China, which has engaged North Korea as an ally and benefactor for decades while attempting to present itself as a responsible international actor, lost face when North Korea conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test this past weekend.
“Given the new developments on the Korean peninsula, China agrees that the UN Security Council should make a further response and take necessary measures,” Wang said, without elaborating on details.
The relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang has deteriorated as the latter becomes more of a liability than an asset for China’s strategic interests, and China is concerned that continued escalation may eventually result in a conflict that would spread instability and destruction across Northeast Asia, which runs directly contrary to China’s long-term aspirations.
The U.S. has put forward a draft resolution that would punish North Korea severely for its aggressive actions. This resolution would strengthen the sanctions resolution unanimously approved in the wake of the North’s second intercontinental ballistic missile test in July, which Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, called the “strongest sanctions ever imposed” on North Korea.
The draft resolution calls on member states to cut off North Korea’s oil supplies, freeze Kim Jong Un’s assets, board and seize North Korea’s smuggling vessels, ban the sale of North Korean mineral exports, and prohibit the use of North Korean overseas labor to pressure North Korea to end its nuclear and ballistic missile tests and development programs.
It is unlikely, given past experience, that China will agree to all of the demands of the draft resolution, but Beijing has begun putting more pressure on Pyongyang.
China agreed to fully implement the most recent UN resolution, has reportedly started suspending North Korean laborer imports, closed North Korean border crossings, and restricted imports of North Korean minerals. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in April that Beijing managed to convince North Korea not to conduct a nuclear test, but it appears that China has either lost control of its neighbor or refuses to use its leverage.
China’s support for tougher UN action against North Korea comes as the U.S. is threatening to cut trade ties with countries that conduct illegal business with North Korea. “If we don’t get these additional sanctions at the UN,” Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin told reporters Wednesday, “I have an executive order prepared that’s ready to go to the president that will authorize to stop doing trade and put sanctions on anybody that does trade with North Korea.” As the vast majority of all North Korean trade is tied to China, such an order would deliver a serious blow.
Beijing has repeatedly expressed frustration with President Donald Trump’s tendency to link trade and the North Korean nuclear crisis, but that is the game at this point. China can either choose to play or turn a dangerous situation into a larger disaster. China is also deeply troubled by the buildup of American strategic military assets around the Korean Peninsula and the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile batteries on South Korean soil.
The Chinese state government, which will soon convene for an important twice-in-a-decade meeting, is in a predicament, one in which it cannot afford to appear weak or irresponsible. China is continuing to push its own agenda on the Korean Peninsula, asserting that punitive actions should be designed to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.
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