North Korea subject to coal embargo

China halted coal trade with North Korea for the rest of this year. The embargo on coal coincides with the United Nations’ repeated pleas for nations to sanction North Korea for their recent nuclear weapon production.

National Public Radio reported that China’s decision halts all coal import from North Korea, which is a change from its previously limited “livelihood amount” of coal purchased. China has tended to purchase this livelihood amount of coal to prevent complete instability in the North Korean economy, as coal trade represents nearly 35 percent of North Korea’s economy.

Despite what appears to be simply a response to nuclear activity in North Korea, Phillip Todd, junior international business major at John Brown University, believes that China has more self-interested reasons for the embargo.

“China has never really subscribed to any of the U.N.’s decisions, and that’s evident with North Korea, considering that they have always imported a lot more than the U.N. would allow and they have always asserted themselves as their own sovereign power,” Todd said.

Todd described how China has been seeing positive results from capitalism in controlled ways in some of its economic districts that, though under Communist rule, have been allowed to experiment with a free market.

“I think China – and their government will never say this – but China is trying to posture itself as a more free country,” Todd said. “I think they might portray [the image of demanding North Korea to shape up], but I think it’s just a marketing decision, in the sense that, ‘We’ve embargoed North Korea. We see that there are problems in North Korea. Now [the world] can ethically buy from us,’” Todd said.

Chris Poveda, sophomore finance major at JBU, said he believes that China’s motive for the embargo on North Korea is not economic, but is more about China’s geopolitical interest in Asia.

“The UN already has sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear program. China doesn’t follow U.N. law in the South China Sea. In this situation, China’s decision motive for the embargo on North Korea is not economic, but is more about China’s geopolitical interest in Asia.

Poveda said that that China’s decision is less motivitated by reconciliation with the U.N. and more by its own interests, “China’s [embargo] decision converges with U.N. law. However, China continues to ignore U.N. law in the South China Sea,” Poveda said. “Geopolitics is messy. In that area of the world, this issue is very minor compared to what’s happening in the South China Sea: it’s just about a Cold War in the South China Sea. U.S. warships are coming into very close, dangerous contact with Chinese warships.”

Poveda said that China’s foreign policy toward North Korea can be summed up in six words: “No war, no instability, no nukes.” Further, there exists a hierarchy within these three policies, with “no war” being primary. However, Poveda pointed out a conflict of these interests due to the embargo since it was, in public view, a response to the nuclear activity of North Korea, and yet it lends to increased instability in North Korea. Poveda provided two possible reasons to make sense of the conflict of interests.

“First, there has been a ‘break up’ between China and North Korea. Now they are allies due to North Korea’s increased nuclear activity. Second, recently poisoned and killed Kim Jong Nam, the elder brother of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, was being protected by China.  was a possible ‘pro-China’ replacement for his brother,” Poveda said.

Both Todd and Poveda agree that the embargo on North Korean coal will have devastating effects on the people of North Korea. “China has cut a significant portion of the income from North Koreans,” Poveda said.

However, Todd said, the embargo could lead to the collapse of the North Korean government. “They already have spending problems with most of their money going to their military. How many failed missile attempts have we seen recently? That’s where all their resources are going. I think the government is going to run out of money. Maybe we’ll see a coup. I don’t know,” he said.

“I think that it’s on its way to collapse, which will be a great thing for the people of North Korea. Not initially, but in the long run. Especially since there is such a thriving and well-built government in South Korea.,” Todd said.