China’s foreign minister said Thursday that Beijing would support further U.N.-imposed “measures” against North Korea following its largest nuclear test, but stopped short of saying whether China would back crippling economic sanctions such as halts to fuel shipments.
The comments by Wang Yi suggested possible room for cooperation over U.S.-drafted plans to increase pressures on North Korea after its nuclear test earlier this week.
President Donald Trump has made pressuring China to “do more” on North Korea a priority. After Sunday’s missile test, he tweeted that Pyongyang has become a “threat and embarrassment to China”- a rather pointed critique of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China – the main economic lifeline for North Korea – has long been hesitant to completely cutoff the crude oil supply to North Korea, wary that economic instability could bring a flood of refugees to the border and U.S. soldiers to its doorstep.
“Given the new developments on the Korean Peninsula, China agrees that the U.N. Security Council should respond further by taking necessary measures,” the foreign minister Yi told reporters.
“We believe that sanctions and pressure are only half of the key to resolving the issue. The other half is dialogue and negotiation,” he added.
Wang did not specify what type of measures he had in mind, compounding questions about what the international community can do next.
The United States is seeking the toughest-yet U.N. sanctions against North Korea, according to a draft resolution circulated Wednesday. The sanctions would stop all oil and natural gas exports and freeze the government’s foreign financial assets.
North Korea greeted the proposal with a threat: “We will respond to the barbaric plotting around sanctions and pressure by the United States with powerful counter measures of our own,” read a statement delivered at a summit in Russia on Thursday.
Russia, which has veto power at the United Nations, has also expressed opposition to the plan.
Russia and China are in favor of a “double suspension” deal that would see North Korea halt nuclear and missile tests if the United States and South Korea stop holding joint military exercises – a plan that the U.S. and South Korea have rejected.
But after a Wednesday night phone call with the Chinese president, Trump struck a more conciliatory tone, suggesting that he and Xi were largely in agreement on what to do.
“I believe that President Xi agrees with me 100 percent,” Trump told reporters.” He doesn’t want to see what’s happening there either.”
“We had a very, very frank and very strong phone call,” Trump continued. “President Xi would like to do something.”
Trump, like Wang, failed to specify what that something might be.
From China’s perspective, an oil cutoff would be a major step.
Jin Qiangyi, a professor at the Center for North and South Korean Studies at Yanbian University, said cutting off North Korea’s oil supply was could mean “trouble” for China.
“What would we do if there was chaos after cutting off oil?” he asked. “Besides, oil is the last card we have.”
Zhang Liangui, a North Korean studies expert at the Communist Party’s Central Party School in Beijing, said that Sunday’s nuclear test sparked real fear about contamination near the China-North Korea border, a fact that could encourage China to finally play the card.
But even if China went ahead with oil sanctions, Zhang said, Russia could still block the plan.
“Whether North Korea has nuclear missiles or not does not as much to Russia as it does to China,” he said. “Therefore, Russia might be seeing things from a very different angle.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Emily Rauhala