The State of Play in Sino-DPRK Relations

Bottom line: China invited Kim because it wants to be part of any peace negotiations. They don’t want war in Korea but for North Korea to denuclearize, open up, and stabilize. They are upset at Trump blaming them for the slow pace of negotiations. For the progress made so far, China has loosened up on unilateral sanctions. They have even exported fertilizer, classifying it as agricultural assistance to exempt it from the UN Sanctions (emphasis added). Read more at 38 North.

What Beijing has learned from that experience is that cooperation with Trump on North Korea only frees the US up to make harsher moves against China on other fronts.

Xi’s invitation to Kim Jong Un to visit China, long delayed for seven years, came within ten days of Trump accepting a summit meeting with Kim…. Beijing is relying on Kim to reject any proposal to exclude China in negotiations….

China has worked quickly to disperse the immediate possibility of a war and of being sidelined on Korean Peninsula affairs, two of Beijing’s biggest fears.

On trade, UN sanctions on North Korean exports do not appear to have been eased based on official Chinese data. According to the Chinese Customs, Sino-DPRK trade in the first half of 2018 was 7 billion RMB, down 59% from the same period in 2017, including a decrease in Chinese exports to North Korea of 43%, or 6.38 billion RMB; and a decrease in imports from North Korea of 88.7%, or 690 million RMB. The same set of data also suggests that Chinese imports from North Korea have been in decline for 10 consecutive months since 2017.

China has lifted most of the unilateral sanctions it imposed on North Korea since 2017, including the resumption of suspended Chinese group tours to North Korea and flights between Pyongyang and Beijing as well as Shanghai. Moreover, assistance—especially agricultural assistance—is a key area not included in the UN sanctions when it is categorized as for humanitarian purposes. As early as this past May, Chinese fertilizer manufacturers were thrilled about an upcoming government procurement of 200,000 tons of urea fertilizer to be supplied to North Korea.

Denuclearization remains high on China’s priority list as it has no desire for a nuclear North Korea on its border, but prominent Chinese experts have expressed concerns that North Korea has shown no intention to abandon its nuclear capability.

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China is pleased by North Korea’s demonstrated interest in prioritizing economic development. And it sees the potential of enhanced political cooperation to help the North maintain its domestic political stability and regime security if it does embark down a path of reform and opening up, which many Chinese believe could lead to denuclearization in the long run.