On Thursday, North Korea criticized China in unusually bitter language for tightening sanctions, accusing its powerful Communist neighbor of “mean behavior” and “dancing to the tune of the U.S.”
The critical commentary was carried by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency, but did not name China specifically. While it was not a formal government statement, commentators in North Korea do not depart from the government’s official position. Mr. Jong (the writer) left no doubt about his target, referring to “a neighboring country, which often claims itself to be a ‘friendly neighbor.’”
The commentary came five days after China announced that it was suspending all coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year. China said the ban was part of its efforts to enforce United Nations sanctions aimed at ending the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile programs.
“Its recent measures are, in effect, tantamount to the enemies’ moves to bring down the social system in the DPRK,” the commentary said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “This country, styling itself a big power, is dancing to the tune of the U.S.”
China imposed the coal ban after the North Korean test of a ballistic missile that the United Nations Security Council condemned as a violation of its resolutions. The ban deprived North Korea of one of its most important sources of hard currency. Coal accounted for nearly 40 percent of its exports in the past several years, and almost all of it was shipped to China, according to South Korean government estimates.
Although North Korea’s “juche” ideology emphasizes the nation’s self-reliance, in reality the country depends on China for 90 percent of its external trade.
That has led officials in South Korea and the United States to argue that Beijing should use its economic influence to force the North to suspend its weapons programs. While pushing for ever tighter sanctions, some officials have suggested that Beijing was losing patience with the North Korean regime over its continued tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
But other analysts remain skeptical about China’s willingness to use its economic leverage. China and North Korea share a deep bond forged decades ago when their Communist leaders fought together.
These analysts think that Beijing also fears a destabilized North Korea more than a nuclear-armed North Korea, and that it considers the country a vital buffer against the United States military based in South Korea.
They tend to see China’s suspension of coal imports as a warning to North Korea, and as a deft move to blunt Washington’s criticism that it was not doing enough to enforce sanctions. China insists that Washington engage the North in negotiations to solve the nuclear problem.
On Wednesday, an editorial in the state-controlled Global Times of China said that despite the coal import ban, China’s friendship with North Korea remained unchanged.
“Chinese sanctions only target at its nuclear weapon program, and we are firmly opposed to Seoul’s political fantasy against Pyongyang,” it said.
For its part, North Korea maintained a defiant tone. It warned on Thursday that it would be “utterly childish” to think that the North would stop building its “nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic rockets if a few pennies of money is cut off.”