Seafood importers in northeastern China took to the streets as they watched frozen product melt in trucks blocked from crossing the country’s border with North Korea, after Beijing began enforcing a new round of economic sanctions.
In spite of the public outcry at home, calls from abroad are urging China to play a bigger role in sanctioning Pyongyang amid escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula.
But analysts say Beijing does not want to become a target of retaliation and lacks influence in North Korea - despite its longstanding ties with the isolated country.
Outcry from seafood importers
China issued a notice Tuesday evening to stop imports of iron, lead, coal and seafood from Pyongyang, effective the next day.
That caught seafood importers in Jilin province off guard, causing them to rush truckloads of frozen seafood from Pyongyang before midnight.
A video clip from Chinese social media showed that a bridge along the border was jam-packed with dozens of truck containers stuffed with crabs, shrimp and squid, which were melting and risked being spoiled within those final hours.
Images online further showed that a protest ensued.
Traders in the small city of Hunchun, where North Korean imports had long underpinned a thriving business, held out banners demanding compensation for their losses – signs that China has acted on the U.N. resolution to toughen up against Pyongyang.
“There’s nothing we can do but await words from the government,” said Lang Yulin, sales vice president of a local trader. “Our company has suffered more than 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) in losses… 4 million yuan losses from frozen product and another 6 million yuan in investment losses,” he said, adding that 70 percent of company sales used to come from North Korean seafood.
China’s leadership role
Analysts in Beijing say China deserves credit for paying a price to enforce tougher sanctions that have, they say, to some extent forced Pyongyang to call off this week’s plan to launch missiles toward Guam.
And they say that while China has demonstrated its leadership, its proposal of “double suspension” – a halt to Pyongyang’s nuclear development and U.S.-South Korea military drills – has failed to garner support from the relevant counties.
“China is pushing for a certain [level of] compromise. This is leadership [although] China’s leadership role is not welcomed by both North Korea and the U.S.,” said Shen Dingli, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University.
The professor lauded China for being more pragmatic than Pyongyang and Washington, both of which he said have gone from one extreme to the other with no middle ground.
The U.S. has long accused Beijing of doing too little to curb its nuclear-armed neighbor, whose recent advance in testing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland has sent shockwaves around the world.
In face of growing calls for China to contain North Korea, many observers in Beijing argue the world may have overestimated China’s influence over Kim Jong Un, leader of the North.
“In recent years, Sino-North Korea relations have deteriorated over many issues and hit a new low. It’s getting more and more difficult for the Chinese government to influence the North,” said Cai Jian of Fudan University.
“What we [China] can do now is to work as a go-between, urging self-restraint from both parties,” he added.
Zhao Tong, a fellow researcher with Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, agreed, saying China cannot afford to get too entangled in the mess triggered by the U.S. to invite retaliation from Kim.
“If China takes the initiative in exerting economic pressures that threaten the fate of the North Korea regime, it is highly likely that Pyongyang will turn hostile against China as it is toward the U.S.,” Zhao said.
“Pyongyang is likely to use its nuclear and missile capabilities to threaten China once the North’s regime feels insecure and begins to see China as a threat,” he said.
The researcher added that Kim is quick in stamping out any potential rivalry from within that he suspects may collaborate with foreign powers, including China, to topple him, as evidenced by his ruthless execution of his own uncle and other officials believed to be pro-Beijing.
Crisis far from over
Both Cai and Zhao warned the Korean peninsula crisis is far from over, as the planned U.S.-South Korea war games next week may give Kim another excuse to resume his missile tests.
While holding the U.S. responsible for the crisis, China is, however, beginning to see Pyongyang as a liability, according to Sun Zhe, a professor of international studies at Tsinghua University.
If the crisis gets out of control, China can’t avoid its share of consequences, which include a possible flood of North Korean refugees - reasons that it cannot afford to sit on the sidelines.
However, the professor said China hasn’t yet adjusted its policy toward Pyongyang for fear of tilting the strategic balance of power in the region.
“As a result of traditional inclination, China isn’t ready to give up its longstanding ties with Pyongyang,” Sun said. “That combines with many other complexities, including China’s concerns over the [deployment of] Terminal High Altitude Area Defense [in South Korea] and mounting pressures from the U.S. Hence, China’s policy toward Pyongyang hasn’t factored in its growing anxiety, discontent and complaints about the North as a result of its considerations to maintain a strategic balance,” he added.
Brian Kopczynski contributed to this report.