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A nation must think before it acts.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is heading to Pyongyang for the first state visit by a Chinese leader to North Korea in well over ten years. It’s a high-profile event, and given how stalled the diplomatic process is between the U.S. and North Korea, there are certainly hopes on all sides that Xi’s visit will get something moving. The question is what exactly that could be. For North Korea’s part, it’s unlikely to be much in terms of what it has been most persistent in demanding: sanctions relief.
To be sure, Kim Jong-un will likely get something from the visit. In the past, gasoline prices on North Korea’s markets have tracked relatively closely with the state of relations with China. That is, when things get better, it’s often noticeable in that gas prices tend to go down. They’ve been falling to relatively low levels over the past few weeks, which could indicate that Chinese supply has already increased. The drop in prices could also have to do with seasonal factors. It’s not just gas prices that suggest that sanctions implementation eased somewhat around the time of Kim Jong-un’s visits to China, and other signs of improved relations. In the past, there have also been reports that some North Korean workers have been allowed back into China around the time of Kim’s visits.
When major positive events in relations between the two countries have taken place, China’s sanctions pressure tends to ease a little bit in fairly minor, symbolic ways. But such changes are hardly paradigmatic shifts in the current process, or in North Korea’s geopolitical or economic situation. Xi might (figuratively) come bearing around 100,000 tons of food aid, as well as fertilizer. In context, that isn’t even that much. For reference, the estimated food deficit by the World Food Program is 1.36 million tons. South Korea’s donation of 50,000 tons also only makes a dent in this deficit, although more may come from both countries in the near future. (The North Korean government could easily afford to close this gap, but chooses not to do so.)
Judging by news from inside North Korea, the dire state of the economy—largely caused by Chinese implementation of UN sanctions—continues with few causes for optimism. North Korean businesspeople and workers in China still face immense difficulties, and many see their visas expire without renewal, or denied altogether, in line with UN sanctions. There is, of course, not a full, perfect sanctions regime in place. China could certainly exercise greater pressure on North Korea should it desire to do so, for example, by clamping down harder on smuggling both along the border and via sea routes.
Nonetheless, China does appear to, for now, implement economic sanctions on North Korea to a much greater degree than it has in the past. As things remain volatile in U.S.-China relations and tensions persist over their trade ties, China is unlikely to use much political capital to ease pressure on North Korea to any significant extent, at least not in the short term. The longer the stall goes on in talks between the U.S. and North Korea, the more likely it is that China will begin to ease up on its sanctions implementation in a more consistent manner. But we’re not there yet.
Xi’s visit also doesn’t mark a shift in geopolitical terms. Some commentators have speculated that Xi is going to Pyongyang to make sure that North Korea stays firmly in China’s political orbit, and that it doesn’t stray too close to the U.S. or South Korea.
That may have been a legitimate concern, albeit a rather small and hypothetical one, in early 2018 when it first became evident that direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea would go from pipe dream to reality. At that time, the limits of the developing relationship hadn’t been tested, and it wasn’t unreasonable to speculate that maybe North Korea would be able to take a few small, first steps to rid itself of its detested economic dependence on China by developing closer economic and political ties to the U.S., in the long-run, distant future. Now, in the middle of a stalled diplomatic process with no apparent way forward, that looks even less likely than before. China remains the only country with truly solid economic links to North Korea. Even under the current, relatively stern sanctions regime. China’s stock market was probably a little too optimistic in rushing toward companies with investment prospects in North Korea when news of the upcoming visit broke, but still, the market understands what might come in the longer run. Despite the past few years of increased sanctions pressure, China has proceeded with infrastructure development related to trade with North Korea, for example, by finishing the new bridge between China’s Jian and North Korea’s Manpo earlier this year.
Xi’s visit is significant for a variety of reasons, not least for propaganda purposes, and future prospects of economic engagement by China in North Korea, when or if sanctions are lifted. But a game changer, it is not.