Implementing Sanctions against North Korea:A Chinese Perspective

North Korea’s repeated nuclear and missile tests have invited international sanctions, including those by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Since 2006, the UNSC passed six resolutions against it, leaving North Korea and the international community bogged down in a drawn-out confrontation. In defiance, North Korea continues to develop its nuclear and missile programs, and the international community keeps punishing the North. So far, sanctions, ranging from military embargos to economic punishments, fail to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. The program remains one of most contentious security issues in Northeast Asia.

China’s Attitude toward Sanctions against North Korea

North Korea’s nuclear program has drawn international attention since the early 1990s. Even though the United States government once was tempted to take military actions to root out North Korea’s suspected nuclear facilities, it had to work with other stakeholders to seek a diplomatic solution. In order to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program, the United States reached a deal with North Korea, the Agreed Framework, in which it promised to build two light-water nuclear reactors for North Korea with heavy oil assistance in exchange for North Korea’s consent to freeze its nuclear program. As both nations failed to honor their commitments, the deal fell apart and gave rise to the second nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, which resulted in the start of Six-Party Talks in 2003. Whereas the United States and its allies blame North Korea’s uranium enrichment program for the breakdown of the Agreed Framework talks, China and Russia place the blame on both sides.

China hosted and chaired the Six-Party talks for about three years until North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. China changed its initial position on two key issues as North Korea drifted away from the talks. First, on the involvement of the UNSC in the North Korean nuclear issue, China once opposed raising this issue there on the grounds that the UN involvement would complicate the ongoing Six-Party Talks. Second, on sanctions against North Korea, for a long time, China stubbornly resisted any call to publically pressure or punish North Korea despite its refusal to cooperate in the talks.1 As North Korea fired a number of ballistic missiles and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), China changed its mind and agreed to impose UNSC-authorized sanctions against North Korea.2 North Korea’s first nuclear test further encouraged China to assent to enhanced sanctions including prohibiting any conventional heavy weapon-related sales between North Korea and member states of the United Nations,3 while some North Korea’s companies and individuals were put on a black list.

China’s departure from its traditional non-sanction, non-UN involvement position showed that North Korea’s missile and nuclear provocations had crossed some lines and warranted international punishment. As North Korea proceeded with new nuclear tests, China gave a green light to harsher sanctions. Generally speaking, China’s attitude toward punishing North Korea through the UNSC has followed some fundamental considerations. First, sanctioning it, militarily and economically, should be the last resort, after related parties have exhausted other peaceful means. Second, military sanctions should take precedence over economic sanctions until the former fail; sanctions should be imposed and implemented incrementally in order to avoid any “chaos” that may be caused by sanctions, as long as “no nuclear weapons, no chaos, and no war” continues to be the gist of China’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula. Third, the international community should impose sanctions against North Korea in a manner akin to a “precision-strike” rather than a “massive destruction,” mainly designed to undermine North Korea’s ability to develop its missile and nuclear programs, not its regime. Fourth, sanctioning North Korea is not for the sake of punishing North Korea; its ultimate objective is to increase the cost of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and force it to return to the negotiating table. Last, China’s national security should not be compromised as the sanctions against North Korea are a collective endeavor.

Sanctions Push North Korea into a “Death Zone”

China’s endorsement of UNSC Resolution 2270 in March 2016 caught many analysts off guard, given China’s lengthy delay in answering South Korea and the United States’ call to punish North Korea economically. China’s delay had its own reasons. In sharp contrast with the previous punitive resolutions, the recent resolution carries some “hard-hitting” elements that are destined to hurt North Korea badly and may push North Korea into its own death zone.

For the first time, the resolution gives the green light to economic sanctions against North Korea, targeting its trade in resources, which have generated a significant portion of its revenues and comprised a large share of its foreign trade. The sanctions will disrupt its economic momentum—economic growth will slow down if not go negative. In order to cripple North Korea’s ability to trade, its financial sector is also put under the sanctions. Its financial institutes abroad are shut down. Companies will find it hard to earn money and transfer their profits back to their homeland. To undermine North Korea’s missile development, the resolution bans the transfer of aviation fuel to North Korea. The ban may help to ground many of North Korea’s airplanes, which may weaken the capability of its own air force. More importantly, the resolution imposes new cargo inspections and maritime procedures to limit North Korea’s ability to transfer UN-prohibited items.

As US ambassador Samantha Power said, the sanctions go further than any UN sanctions regime in the last two decades and aim to cut off funds for North Korea’s nuclear and other banned weapons programs.4 If the resolution were fully implemented without considering humanitarian consequences, North Korea would be pushed to the brink of economic chaos and, possibly, political instability.

Even if North Korea has been pushed into the “death zone,” its ordeal is not over yet. As Pyongyang is determined to improve the quality and quantity of its nuclear and missile weapons, another nuclear test has become inevitable. North Korea will face new sanctions. The added punitive measures may include: 1) to eliminate the livelihood exception article from the new resolution in order to close the so-called loophole in the sanctions; 2) to extend the ban on aviation fuel to crude oil supplies in order to dry up the lifeblood of North Korea’s industries; 3) to tighten the sanctions by including the textile sector on the punitive list; and 4) to suspend tourism with North Korea and/or to impose a ban on North Korea’s export of labor services in order to further cripple North Korea’s ability to earn hard-currency.

Obviously, any newly-added items would push North Korea deep into the death zone. China would be the first country to bear the major brunt of the new sanctions; thus, China’s maneuvering room to punish North Korea for its nuclear provocations and, at the same time, keep the regime alive would be further squeezed. As long as China continues to prioritize preventing North Korea from plunging into chaos, China’s resistance to new sanctions will persist. It may even grow stronger under various possible conditions.   

China under the Spotlight

Resolution 2270 represents the harshest sanctions the UNSC has ever imposed on North Korea, but its effect depends on how the resolution is implemented. As the impact of the new sanctions gradually unfold, some analysts have expressed concern that the exceptions to the ban on mineral exports leave states to determine whether the exports will support the livelihood of North Koreans, or fund North Korea’s nuclear or ballistic missile programs. Certainly, the exceptions protect some Chinese companies from going bankrupt caused by sudden trade disruptions and avert high legal costs for any breach of their contracts, but they also make it possible to avoid humanitarian consequences, which the international community does not want to see.

Clearly, the exception articles leave North Korea at China’s mercy. Beijing can tighten or loosen its economic grip on Pyongyang, depending on the latter’s external behavior. They put China under the spotlight as Seoul and Washington harbor deep-seated suspicion about Beijing’s commitment to punishing its ally.

On April 5, China’s Ministry of Commerce and General Administration of Customs jointly issued Announcement No.11 (2016) on a List of Mineral Products Embargo against the DPPK, clearly stipulating that imports of coal, iron, and iron ore from North Korea are forbidden with two exceptions.5 In late June, the Chinese government submitted the implementation report as requested under Resolution 2270. So far, Resolution 2270’s impact on Sino-DPRK trade is mixed: Under the category of mineral fuels, mineral oils, products of their distillation, bituminous substances, and mineral waxes, the two-way trade volume between China and North Korea from March to May in 2015 and 2016 were 5,133,082 and 5,563,295 tons respectively,6 marking an increase of 8.38 percent. But the volume slipped 18.86 percent and 13.66 percent in April and May 2016 from the year before. Under the category of ores, slag, and ash, the total two-way trade volume between China and North Korea from March to May in 2015 and 2016 were 444,076 and 531,096 tons respectively,7 an increase of 19.6 percent. On a year-on-year basis, the trade volume increased by 20.36 percent and 49.35 percent in April and May 2016 respectively.

Even though the numbers may be too soon and not comprehensive enough to accurately reveal if China has strictly implemented the sanctions against North Korea, they definitely disappointed South Korea, which harbored high expectations of cooperation from China. This, in part, encouraged South Korea and the United States to take the risk of seeking further measures against North Korea’s nuclear threat, namely, deploying the THAAD system in South Korea.  

The United Front against North Korea May Falter

In addition to the exceptions, which have already caused friction between China and South Korea, another divisive factor—the THAAD issue—has also begun to shake the foundation of the united front against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The THAAD issue has been around for a while and took center stage in the wake of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. South Korea and the United States insist that North Korea’s increasing missile and nuclear threat necessitates the deployment of the THAAD system; China strongly opposes it, insisting that the system will change the strategic balance in Northeast Asia in favor of the United States and pose a threat to China’s national security. The dispute over the THAAD reveals the nature of the zero-sum game being played by China and the United States.

On July 8, in defiance of China’s consistent opposition, South Korea and the United States jointly announced their decision to deploy the THAAD system with US Forces Korea. China expressed firm opposition to the decision and summoned the US and ROK ambassadors to lodge its complaints. Even though China so far has not announced counter-measures and how China will react is difficult to project, China has registered its anger and frustration in its relations with South Korea. Recently, Song Tao, minister of the International Department of the CPC Central Committee, cancelled his meeting with Gyeonggi-do’s governor Nam Kyung-pil at the last minute. Qiu Guohong, the Chinese ambassador to South Korea, also cancelled his meeting with some of South Korea’s parliament members. These cancellations were not accidental; they reflect China’s intention to dampen its relations with South Korea.

To South Korea’s dismay, Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Kim Jong-un to mark the 55th anniversary of the treaty on friendship and mutual assistance between the two countries. It is not extraordinary for Chinese leaders to send congratulatory messages to North Korea celebrating the alliance treaty signed in 1961, but it is extraordinary for Xi to renew the old practice, which was suspended for about a decade. The Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi also met with his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong-ho during ASEAN forum – their first bilateral meeting in two years. Given the recent diplomatic interactions between China and North Korea, the two countries’ relations seem to be undergoing some positive changes, which stand in sharp contrast with the cooling-off of Sino-South Korea relations.

As for systematic counter-measures against the upcoming deployment of the THAAD, it is expected that military actions will be inevitable. China may act alone or with Russia. It also remains uncertain whether China will go further to punish South Korea economically. Political ties will suffer but in a moderate way since China does not want to turn South Korea into another “Japan.” Nonetheless, the united front against North Korea’s nuclear program that many stakeholders including China and South Korea have cultivated in the past few years will face some serious testing. Even though China, a permanent member of the Security Council, will not violate the UNSC resolutions to let North Korea loose with its nuclear weapons, the THAAD issue will to poison its relations with South Korea and the United States. If China and South Korea do not handle the THAAD issue well, the united front may falter.

1. “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Jianchao’s Press Conference on 10 May 2005, Website of Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of Malta,”

2. The UNSC Resolution 1695 requires all member states to exercise vigilance and prevent missile and missile-related items, materials, goods and technology being transferred to the DPRK’s missile or WMD programs; or to exercise vigilance and prevent the procurement of missiles or missile related-items, materials, goods and technology from the DPRK, and the transfer of any financial resources in relation to the DPRK’s missile or WMD programs.

3. According to Resolution 1718, all member states shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer to the DPRK of any battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles, or missile systems.

4. Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols, “U.N. imposes harsh new sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear program,” Reuters, March 3, 2016,

5. The two exceptions include: 1) trading that is determined to be conducted to generate profits solely for the people’s livelihood; and 2) trading of coal that is confirmed not to have originated in the DPRK but to have been delivered and used for export from the port of Rason through the DPRK, and that does not involve the nuclear program or the ballistic missile program of the DPRK.

6. Monthly trade volumes in the three months were: 1,328,015 tons (March 2015), 1,959,779 tons (April 2015), 1,845,288 tons (May 2015); 2,379,900 tons (March 2016), 1,590,083 tons (April 2016), 1,593,312 tons (May 2016).

7. Monthly trade volumes in the three months were: 160,741 tons (March 2015), 117,576 tons (April 2015), 165,759 tons (May 2015); 142,035 (March 2016), 141,484 tons (April 2016), 247,577 tons (May 2016).