The North Korean Nuclear Dilemma: Does China Have Leverage?

AuthorGinger L. Denton,Weiqi Zhang
Published date01 August 2019
Date01 August 2019
Subject MatterArticles
The North Korean
Nuclear Dilemma: Does
China Have Leverage?
Weiqi Zhang1
Ginger L. Denton2
North Korea has repeatedly defied the international community with regards
to its nuclear weapons programme. Many look to China for leverage to change
North Korea’s behaviour. This study reviews the development of the China–
North Korean relationship and conducts a statistical analysis on the impact of
China’s influence on North Korea. Our analysis finds China’s leverage on North
Korea to be nuanced. We maintain that North Korea has been wary of China’s
influence. Complete isolation or pressure from China under certain conditions
will render North Korea more resistant to China’s influence. We also suggest that
the key to the North Korean issue is still in the hands of the United States and
the entire international community through the use of an engagement strategy.
Nuclear weapons, sanctions, North Korea, China, United States
North Korea has repeatedly defied the international community with regards to its
nuclear weapons programme despite diplomatic pressure and international
economic sanctions. Given that North Korea is believed to have an alliance-like
relationship with China and that it relies on the latter for food and energy supplies,
many in the international community believe that China has leverage on North
Korea to change its behaviour and that North Korea’s defiance to the international
pressure is attributable to China’s protection. Therefore, Beijing has been called
on to utilise this leverage and persuade North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons
1 Suffolk University, Boston, USA.
2 United States Coast Guard Academy, New London, USA.
Corresponding author:
Weiqi Zhang, Office 1078, 73 Tremont Street, Suffolk University, Boston, MA 02108, USA.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
6(2) 107–135, 2019
The Author(s) 2019
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2347797019842437
108 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 6(2)
In response to the request of the international community, China has reduced
its trade with North Korea. According to the International Trade Centre (2017), a
joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations (UN), when
North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, China cut back its cereal
exports to North Korea from US$49 million to US$16 million, a 66 per cent
decline (Figure 1). After North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009, China began
pressuring North Korea by cutting fuel exports from US$586 million to US$327
million, a 44 per cent drop. North Korea’s third nuclear test in 2013 triggered an
81 per cent drop in mineral fuels imports and an 89 per cent drop in cereal imports
from China. In 2017, China banned exports of petroleum to and imports of textile
and coal from North Korea and ordered all North Korean businesses in China to
be closed (Clover, Harris, & Lockett, 2017; Doubek, 2017).
Despite rising pressure from China during this period, little change was seen in
North Korea’s behaviour. Table 1 shows that North Korea’s nuclear and missile
tests have become increasingly frequent since 2006. China has leverage on North
Korea only if the actual withholding of something yields a change or particular
response from the latter. Yet even with the drop in commodity exports to North
Korea, North Korea has tested missiles, such as the intercontinental ballistic
missile, Hwasong-14, in July 2017. Other nuclear-capable missiles were launched
earlier in 2017, including the Pukguksong-2 missile. These missile tests were
followed by China announcing that it would enact UN Security Council sanctions
by suspending imports of coal from North Korea. Even after this announcement
and use of ‘leverage’, North Korea proceeded to test more missiles and is suspected
of killing Kim Jong-Nam, Kim Jong-Un’s more pro-Chinese half-brother.
Scenarios such as these lead us to question why China’s influence fails to change
North Korea’s behaviour.
Figure 1. Chinese Exports to North Korea
Source: Data collected from International Trade Centre’s Trade Map (2017) database.

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