The Cable

With Possible New Sanctions, White House Gets Serious on China’s North Korea Ties

Trump has run out of patience with Beijing.

The Chinese and North Korean flags attached to a railing as trucks carrying Chinese-made goods cross into North Korea on the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge at the Chinese border town of Dandong on December 18, 2013.  China has lost its key North Korean interlocutor with the purging of Kim Jong-Un's uncle, but analysts say the young leader's tightening grip on power may be welcomed by Beijing, which prizes stability in its wayward nuclear-armed ally. Jang Song-Thaek was the second-most powerful member of North Korea's regime and an important link between Pyongyang and Beijing before his dramatic ouster last week, accused of being a corrupt, drug-using womaniser.      AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON        (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
The Chinese and North Korean flags attached to a railing as trucks carrying Chinese-made goods cross into North Korea on the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge at the Chinese border town of Dandong on December 18, 2013. China has lost its key North Korean interlocutor with the purging of Kim Jong-Un's uncle, but analysts say the young leader's tightening grip on power may be welcomed by Beijing, which prizes stability in its wayward nuclear-armed ally. Jang Song-Thaek was the second-most powerful member of North Korea's regime and an important link between Pyongyang and Beijing before his dramatic ouster last week, accused of being a corrupt, drug-using womaniser. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States is reportedly preparing a new round of secondary sanctions on Chinese companies and individuals that do business with North Korea, according to Reuters.

The new measures would target select companies and minor financial firms but no big banks, and could be announced within a matter of weeks, according to the report. The United States slapped an initial round of sanctions on Chinese firms who help prop up Pyongyang in late June — a departure from a traditionally cautious approach to ratcheting up pressure on North Korea’s main source of support.

That the White House would consider a second round of sanctions so soon after the first indicates that the Trump administration is willing to back up its tough rhetoric on North Korea. The sanctions are meant to apply meaningful pressure on a government which is all but single-handedly propping up a regime that threatens South Korea, Japan, and the United States with nuclear destruction.

North Korea’s multiple missile tests in recent months, culminating with its first-ever successful launch last week of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching Alaska, has alarmed the international community and presented Trump’s first major foreign policy test.

Trump has sought to persuade China, North Korea’s largest economic and trade partner by far, to use its leverage over its rogue neighbor to scale back its missile program — as have American governments for years. Despite that track record, the Trump White House displayed an initial optimism, presenting North Korea as an easily solvable problem with the help of Chinese President Xi Jinping, with whom Trump had a friendly summit back in April.

But Beijing, as it has in the past, largely resisted Trump’s demands. After Trump publicly pressed Beijing to rein in economic support for the rogue regime, trade between China and North Korea grew more than 37 percent in the first quarter, a statistic available in April but which Trump didn’t publicly acknowledge until last week.

China is nervous about a nuclear armed North Korea. But it is especially worried about the collapse of the regime with which it shares a border, and fears both an influx of millions of North Korean refugees and the possibility of a unified Korea with U.S. troops again at the Yalu River.

Trump acknowledged as much at a July 12 press availability held aboard Air Force One on the way to France to celebrate Bastille Day. He referred to “tough pressures” that China faces in its relationship with North Korea. “It’s not like, oh, gee, you just do whatever we say,” Trump said. “They’ve had numerous wars with Korea.”

The White House took swift action after seeing that a strategy of persuasion wasn’t working — approving a long-delayed arms sales package to Taiwan, sending in a pair of freedom of navigation operations to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the heavily contested South China Sea, and imposing an initial round of secondary sanctions, which targeted a few individuals and companies with financial ties to Pyongyang.

Sanctions are the only action so far that are specifically intended to pressure China on North Korea; arms sales and fleet movements have happened before and would have again sooner or later.

Sanctions are also the measure with the greatest potential to rankle Beijing, which considers unilateral sanctions a violation of national sovereignty and fears the economic disruption that sanctions might cause.

On Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry bristled at questions about ongoing trade with Pyongyang that seems to skirt U.N. sanctions meant to isolate the regime — and reiterated its hostility to broader economic sanctions.

“Make no mistake, the Security Council’s sanctions on [North Korea] cannot be equated with all-encompassing economic sanctions. The maintenance of normal economic and trade exchanges between China and [North Korea] does not violate Security Council’s resolutions,” the foreign ministry spokesman said.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images 

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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