North Korea Tops Trump's Agenda In South Korea And In China Steve Inskeep talks to NPR's Rob Schmitz about how China is enforcing U.N. sanctions against North Korea. He also talks to analyst Tong Zhao about whether China is doing enough to contain North Korea.

North Korea Tops Trump's Agenda In South Korea And In China

North Korea Tops Trump's Agenda In South Korea And In China

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Steve Inskeep talks to NPR's Rob Schmitz about how China is enforcing U.N. sanctions against North Korea. He also talks to analyst Tong Zhao about whether China is doing enough to contain North Korea.


President Trump has been circling North Korea. He was in Japan to the east, then South Korea to the south. And then he reaches China, which looms north and west and which is where we find our colleague Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: At every stop, President Trump is seeking help in confronting North Korea over its nuclear program. In South Korea today, he was at a U.S. base within 60 miles of the dividing line and later spoke at a news conference with South Korea's president.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will together confront North Korea's actions and prevent the North Korean dictator from threatening millions of innocent lives. He is indeed threatening millions and millions of lives.

INSKEEP: That's President Trump earlier today. Now, he has insisted that the real power to influence North Korea lies with China, its only real friend. When the United Nations imposed new sanctions on the north, it largely fell to China to make them real. And NPR's Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz has been following that effort. Hi, Rob.


INSKEEP: What does China say it's been doing?

SCHMITZ: Well, China has agreed to ban imports of coal from North Korea. And it's also banned imports of a lot of other stuff - North Korean seafood, iron ore and a range of rare Earth minerals. You know, and because nearly all of North Korea's trade is with China, as you mentioned, these are all significant revenue generators for Kim Jong-un's government. China's also agreed to significantly limit exports of oil to North Korea, which is a big hit to Pyongyang since the North relies on China for nearly all of its oil.

Another thing that China's done is that it's ordered all North Korean companies operating inside of China to close by the end of the year.

INSKEEP: OK, that sounds pretty severe. But are the Chinese actually doing these things?

SCHMITZ: Well, according to Chinese customs data, fuel imports and exports between China and the North have dropped significantly. Figures from September show that Chinese imports of North Korean coal were down more than 70 percent from the year before. That same month, China exported only 90 tons of oil to North Korea. That was down nearly 100 percent from last year. China also exports electricity to the North. And customs data shows that in the second quarter of this year, the amount of electricity sent from China to North Korea is also down nearly 100 percent from last year.

INSKEEP: Do all of those changes make a difference in North Korea?

SCHMITZ: Well, I spoke with Sun Xingjie, a professor at Jilin University, who studies Sino-North Korean relations, about this. And he told me it's already having an impact inside North Korea. Here's what he said.

SUN XINGJIE: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Sun told me that last month, North Korea reshuffled some of its senior leadership and that the official in charge of the North's economy has now been elevated to a higher position. Sun follows these shifts really closely, and he says this political reshuffling tells him The North is scrambling to find ways to head off these sanctions. He said, China's actions are already causing damage to the North's economy. But when you look at this data more closely, Steve, there is reason to believe here that China doesn't want to cause catastrophic damage to Pyongyang.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute, are you saying that China is not quite cutting off all the trade that it could?

SCHMITZ: Right. And when you take a closer look at China's customs data, you see that the exports of food to North Korea from China have gone way up. You know, for example, exports of corn to the North this summer actually went up 100 times over last year from China. That is an incredible...

INSKEEP: Wait a minute, you didn't say 100 percent, you said 100 times more corn?

SCHMITZ: Thirty-five thousand metric tons this year from last year. That's 100 times what they sent last year, what the Chinese sent to North Korea last year - huge surge of corn. Rice exports from China to the North rose 79 percent, wheat exports went up 11 times from last year. So while China's cutting off fuel to North Korea, food is surging across the border, likely to try to prevent a humanitarian disaster like we've seen in the past in North Korea from a lot of these economic sanctions.

INSKEEP: Rob, you mentioned that China also said it would close down North Korean businesses here inside China. Is that happening?

SCHMITZ: Well, anecdotally, we here at NPR's Shanghai bureau decided to call a few North Korean businesses to find out. Major Chinese cities typically have North Korean restaurants managed directly by the North Korean government. Shanghai has two of them. So I thought it would be a good idea to call them and try to make reservations for dinner in mid-January. So that's after the date all of these North Korean businesses are supposed to shut down. Both restaurants accepted our reservations and they said that they would be open.

Now, it's certainly possible the North Korean employees who took our calls did not know about China's new sanctions or did not care about them. But it's interesting that they're taking reservations beyond the date that they're supposed to shut down.

INSKEEP: Rob, enjoy that meal if it happens.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) Thanks.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz in Shanghai. Now here in Beijing, where we've been listening to a Chinese perspective on the confrontation with North Korea. We asked Tang Zhao to stop by our Beijing hotel. He is a fellow at Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

Can't China, on some level, tell North Korea what to do?

TONG ZHAO: To some extent. China was able to exercise leverage over North Korea. And North Korea showed some respect to China. But I think that leverage is fading away. As China steps up its economic pressure on North Korea, the bilateral relationship is quickly shifting from a special, close relationship to an increasingly hostile one.

INSKEEP: How much of a gap is there between what China is doing to North Korea and what the United States would like to happen?

TONG: I think one major reason that China has been very reluctant to go there is because China is very uncertain about what would happen, how North Korea would react if the regime is indeed put into a very desperate situation facing the risk of regime collapse. Of course, in that situation, North Korea might choose to simply back down, as Washington expects. But for Beijing, I think the concern is North Korea could become even more militarily provocative.

And if indeed this is what North Korea chooses to do, China doesn't believe the international community, including the United States, has a good counter strategy.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much for coming by.

TONG: Thank you. My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Tong Zhao of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. He's here in Beijing.


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