In February 2016, it seemed that China and the United States had reached the end of their tether with North Korea. The Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi agreed with the US Secretary of State John Kerry on a new UN resolution to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang. This was a reaction to two recent challenges: a nuclear test and a satellite launch. Since 90 per cent of North Korea’s trade is with China, which supplies everything from oil to internet and banking services, it has the greatest capacity to squeeze the regime and its support for sanctions is critical. In February this year, China announced a further measure: a ban on imports of North Korean coal, worth around $1bn a year.
So it might seem surprising that China’s trading figures for the first quarter of 2017, a time when tensions have rarely been higher, revealed that its trade with North Korea had increased sharply: exports rose by 54.5 per cent and imports up by 18.4 per cent, compared to the same quarter last year. Seasoned observers, however, kept their surprise in check. It has long been evident that China’s effective stance towards North Korea is not really the strategic patience favoured by former US president Barack Obama’s administration, but strategic ambivalence.
As well as trade, China gives diplomatic protection and a security guarantee under a 1961 treaty obliging it to defend North Korea in the event of an attack (an arrangement North Korea no longer seems to trust.) Beijing also works to prevent the regime collapse it dreads. Keeping Pyongyang afloat, by definition, implies maintaining the ruling Kim dynasty. With the murder of Kim Jung-un’s half brother in Malaysia in February, there is no obvious alternative to the incumbent, however troublesome. For China, this relationship is “as close as lips and teeth,” an expression that once signalled communist solidarity. Today it merely implies an unavoidable co-dependence. If the lips are gone, the saying continues, the teeth are exposed. If North Korea collapses, a nation unified under the terms of South Korea, a US ally, would be China’s immediate neighbour. For a country in the grip of its own muscular nationalism, that is an intolerable outcome.
China’s border with North Korea is long and porous. It is one of…