Relaxing of sanctions on North Korea appears to be inevitable as long as the country continues to engage in dialogue over the dismantling of its nuclear weapons program with the US, experts say.
In the coming months, China and Russia will step up calls for lifting of sanctions against North Korea, China will loosen its control on the border with North Korea, and the US will turn a blind eye to the crack in implementation of sanctions to maintain the momentum of dialogue, they say.
Following the unprecedented summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump on June 12 in Singapore, there are signs of the US-led pressure campaign being undermined.
The US has led an international campaign to tighten sanctions on North Korea, banning North Korea’s exports of coal, iron ore, textiles and seafood and limiting its imports of oil, in response to Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear and missile tests. North Korea’s economy was further squeezed as China, a major source of hard currency, food and energy for North Korea, joined the sanctions regime.
Now, China, North Korea’s major trading partner and traditional ally, appears to be at the center of the possible crack in the sanctions regime.
After North Korea committed to work toward “complete denuclearization” at the Singapore summit, China immediately suggested that sanctions relief could be considered if the country abides by the UN resolutions.
“The Singapore summit gave room for China to ignore controls being relaxed on the border and to create an atmosphere where sanctions can be eased,” said Kang Jun-young, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
China and Russia submitted a statement to the UN Security Council calling for the easing of sanctions on North Korea, Japanese broadcaster NHK reported, but it was reportedly rejected by the US.
When Kim met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last month, he requested China’s help to end sanctions against the country, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported, and Xi said he would make the “utmost effort” in response to Kim’s request.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry maintains that it will continue to enforce sanctions against the North until it fully dismantles its nuclear arsenal.
For China, which is increasingly competing against the US for influence in the region, boosting ties with North Korea is in its interest.
China’s diplomacy has focused on pursuing stability on the Korean Peninsula. It has long feared a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, and a collapse of the North Korean regime that could push waves of refugees into northeastern China.
But increasingly, it also fears being sidelined in resolving North Korea’s nuclear crisis, and the US and North Korea getting too close, Kang said.
Kim visited China in March ahead of the April 27 inter-Korean summit, in May ahead of the North Korea-US summit and again last month following his meeting with Trump, which many see as signs of strengthening of ties between the communist states.
An escalating trade war between the US and China does not help their joint efforts for denuclearization of North Korea.
“When relations between the US and China deteriorate, there is a higher possibility of the countries using North Korea as a bargaining chip. They could compete to have North Korea on their side,” Kang said.
Indeed, Beijing, which has traditionally opposed harsh sanctions against Pyongyang, holds the key to effectively maintaining the US-led pressure campaign against Pyongyang, experts say.
Chinese authorities not strictly patrolling the border between China and North Korea could create a great deal of “flexibility” for North Korea’s economy, according to Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Far East Institute.
“Whether the Chinese government strictly enforces border control or not has a huge impact on the effectiveness of international sanctions on North Korea,” he said. “If Chinese authorities impose lax control on trade on the border, for example, it makes a huge difference for North Koreans’ livelihoods.”
China is relaxing its control of smuggling activities and customs inspections, and allowing restricted goods to flow across its border with North Korea, Radio Free Asia reported, citing unnamed sources.
“China could feel betrayed by the US about stepping up pressure on it regarding trade, as it is cooperating with the US in maintaining the pressure campaign at the expense of its ties with North Korea,” said Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong Global University.
North Korea, for its part, may be using the discord between the US and China, which are engaged in intensifying conflicts over trade imbalance, to its advantage, he said.
“China will not risk irritating the US by bluntly relaxing sanctions on North Korea,” he said. “But China could still use the sanctions enforcement against North Korea as leverage to put pressure on the US and protect its interests.”
The US has stressed the importance of maintaining sanctions against the North to force it to give up its nuclear arsenal.
President Trump urged continued sanctions efforts by Beijing last week and said the border between China and North Korea was “getting a little weaker now.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was to travel to Pyongyang on Thursday to discuss concrete steps for North Korea’s denuclearization, told a US Senate hearing that he had seen “modest” backsliding by China compared to “six or 12 months ago.”
“The pressure campaign could relatively be undermined while talks with North Korea are underway, but the US seems to have chosen to ignore it temporarily to keep the momentum of dialogue with North Korea,” the professor Kang said.
Experts are divided on whether relaxed sanctions would facilitate the process of complete denuclearization.
The North Korean leader’s ultimate goal is to break out of diplomatic isolation and develop the country’s economy beyond sanctions relief, said Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
“Easing of sanctions would encourage North Korea to take bolder steps to denuclearize,” Hong said.
North Korea also seems to be eyeing broader economic cooperation with China.
Kim visited Sindo County in North Pyongan Province, where the Hwanggumpyong Exclusive Industrial Zone is located, the North’s state-run media reported. The zone was jointly established by North Korea and China. He also visited the country’s largest cosmetics factory in the northwestern border city of Sinuiju, designated an exclusive industrial zone in 2002.
“His visits to the areas send a message to the US that North Korea is serious about giving up its nuclear arsenal and that the regime’s focus has shifted to boosting its economy,” he said.
But others say the lifting of sanctions could hinder efforts to completely rid North Korea of its nuclear program because the isolated country could be less motivated to give it up.
“The biggest concern is a possible repetition of the old, vicious cycle in which North Korea tempts to prolong negotiations, China and Russia team up to help North Korea, and call for a revival of six-party talks,” the professor Kang said. “If so, it could be only a management of the situation, not resolution of it.”