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China worries about North Korean refugees

Anatomy of North Korea Part 9: Why China doesn’t cut off oil
Oct 16,2017
Every other Monday, Ko Soo-suk, a North Korea expert at the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Center, provides an in-depth look at one of the most reclusive nations on the planet. The analyses are based on the senior journalist’s two decades of reporting on North Korea. -Ed.



After North Korea carried out its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3, Washington moved fast to pass the most stringent package of sanctions against Pyongyang in the United Nations Security Council. Resolution 2375, adopted unanimously nearly a week afterward, was designed to fully ban North Korea’s export of textiles, prohibit all joint ventures with the country and cut off nearly half the refined petroleum products shipped to the North, while imposing an annual cap of 4 million barrels of crude oil from abroad.

But it was clear Washington was dissatisfied with the result, since the resolution was a watered-down version of the initial draft, leaving off a full oil embargo, which China reportedly shunned.

Though North Korea watchers have different opinions on just how much an oil embargo would actually work, it is widely believed that China opposes this decision out of fear it may lead to a refugee crisis on its border, destabilizing nearby domestic territories. Beijing, as the prime oil exporter to the North, holds massive power over this economic option, but so far has shown no public interest in putting it to use.

It is not that China’s President Xi Jinping thinks highly of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, who is nearly half his age. Along its 22,000-kilometer (13,670-mile) land border, the Asian power neighbors 14 countries. Since the 1949 Chinese Revolution, which eventually paved the way for the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the Asian power has never grown so irritated as with the North.

Xi had a bad start with North Korea ever since he was elected as general secretary of the Communist Party on Nov. 15, 2012, during the 18th National Congress. Shortly afterwards, Xi’s office announced that the new leader would personally visit China’s socialist allies North Korea, Laos and Vietnam.

But as Xi was preparing for the trip, he heard the North was preparing a long-range rocket test that December, in time for the first anniversary of former leader Kim Jong-il’s death.

Xi immediately sent Li Jianguo, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, to Pyongyang in the hopes of preventing that provocation. Li carried with him a letter to Kim, which partially read that China would continue to provide a bountiful amount of humanitarian aid if the North ceased any missile or nuclear tests. Specifically 500,000 tons of crude oil, 100,000 tons of food and $2 million worth of fertilizer.

But Kim adamantly refused the deal, chillingly replying that China had no say in its domestic affairs and that as a sovereign country, North Korea had the right to carry out a nuclear test or launch a satellite into orbit if it deemed it necessary.

And it was no bluff. On Dec. 12, 2012, North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket that carried a communications satellite, though the rest of the world saw it as a front for a ballistic missile.

What Kim had told Li actually resonates with what North Korea’s former leader, Kim Il Sung, told Chinese President Yang Shangkun in April 1992, when the Beijing leader visited Pyongyang to personally inform him about China’s decision to establish diplomatic ties with South Korea. Kim Il Sung replied that the North would continue its drive to construct a thriving socialist regime, and vowed not to rely on any outer forces, including China, to achieve that goal.

The chasm between the two countries grew even more in February 2013, when Pyongyang carried out its third nuclear test one month before Xi was to assume the presidential office. Choe Ryong-hae, then director of the North Korean Workers’ Party Political Bureau, traveled to Beijing three months later as a special envoy of Kim Jong-un to ask Xi to invite Kim to China for a state visit. Xi refused, and still has not met Kim, making him the only Chinese leader since 1949 who has never had any physical contact with North Korea’s head of state.

Beijing will likely oppose a full-scale oil embargo against North Korea as long as fear of instability along its border looms due to the possibility of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees as well as possible uprising from other minorities within China, including the Tibetans and Uighurs.

North Korea expert Daisuke Kondo wrote in his recent book, “Why Xi Jinping Wants to Kill Kim Jong-un,” that each North Korean defector would require $1.50 each day to resettle, which would equal $1.5 million, supposing 1 million North Koreans flood into China.

An oil embargo would also mean China’s loss of leverage over the hermit kingdom. The lifeline holds massive significance over North Koreans’ livelihood and the regime. Cutting it could trigger North Korea’s ultimate collapse, a power of control Beijing does not want to lose.

BY KO SOO-SUK, LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]