Tremors on the North Korean Border

Tremors on the North Korean Border

A slight but clearly noticeable vibration shook the floor beneath my feet. It was a few minutes past 11:30 on Sunday morning in Hunchun, a city on the North Korean border in China’s far north east. Shortly after, Pyongyang declared it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb small enough to be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Scrutinizing the seismic shock waves, analysts estimated Sunday’s detonation to be between four and 16 times more powerful than any of North Korea’s five previous nuclear tests. With its timing, Pyongyang in effect flicked a radioactive middle finger at China, its patron and protector. The nuclear blast coincided with the opening in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen of the BRICS summit, at which Chinese president Xi Jinping was to receive world leaders and showcase Chinese leadership of the developing world.

In Hunchun, it was a crisp early autumn morning and the start of the local light festival. Residents paused briefly to remark on the tremors, but quickly resumed the bustle of their daily lives as normal. “We are used to it now,” a girl shrugged, waving a hand in the general direction of North Korea. “There won’t be any chaos here,” a man said with confidence.

“China and Russia won’t allow it.”

Seafood sanctions

Far more disruptive to life in Hunchun than yesterday’s test is China’s ban on seafood imports from North Korea, implemented on August 15 in compliance with new UN sanctions. On that day, dozens of trucks loaded with seafood were halted on the Tumen River bridge between North Korean and Chinese customs. In response, Chinese merchants staged a protest at the border, quickly quelled by armed police. According to locals, their goods were dumped in a pit nearby and buried.

Since then, shops in Hunchun advertising fresh North Korean seafood have been shuttered. Crab stalls, normally crowded at this time of year, have disappeared. An industry worth as much as RMB8bn to the local economy—according to one local official—is withering away. Importers, truck drivers, packagers and distributers are all having to look for alternative employment and income.

Hunchun merchants, many with experience trading with North Korea, speak with disdain of their “poor, backward and deceitful” neighbors. Yet few question Beijing’s apparent determination to support and shelter the Kim regime, despite its open disrespect of China, and the mounting pressure from Washington. After all, instability in North Korea would quickly spill into the Chinese northeast. “Seven to eight million refugees would flood across the border, and that’s only a conservative estimate”, says one Chinese scholar who travels frequently to North Korea.

In addition to the seafood ban, China has also agreed to stop importing North Korean coal and iron ore, and recently stopped issuing new visas to North Korean workers. Hunchun has a couple of thousand of them, working in restaurants and textile factories for meager wages of about US$200 a month, most of which are turned over to the North Korean state.

The import bans China implemented last month are certain to hurt North Korea and significantly constrict its access to foreign currency. But Beijing has carefully calibrated its sanctions to “punish North Korea for its wrongdoings without cornering it,” according to the Chinese scholar. Seafood may be off the menu, but Chinese importers are still buying North Korean timber, agricultural products, and minerals such as copper and molybdenum, sometimes in barter for Chinese products. Chinese investors are still investing in mines and real estate in North Korea, even though there is a history of projects ending in failure when their North Korean partners renege on contracts.

Oil flows uninterrupted

Most crucially, China still supplies crude oil and refined fuels to its north eastern neighbor, despite pressure from the US to stop. For years Beijing has even looked the other way when North Korea has neglected to pay for these supplies, believing—according to one Chinese government official— that cutting off the flow would sever Pyongyang’s lifeline. Beijing fears that a cornered Kim could turn belligerent towards China, seek accommodation with Washington to Beijing’s exclusion, or fall from power, potentially leaving the Korean Peninsula united under Seoul, a US military ally. As far as China is concerned, none of these scenarios would be an improvement on the status quo—quite the opposite.

The response of Hunchun’s residents to North Korea’s latest nuclear test epitomizes the uneasy compromise that China has come to make with its troublesome neighbor. They’ve grown used to the tremors from across the border, and have learned to live with and negotiate with their erratic neighbors, regarding them with a mixture of disdain, sympathy and resignation. They live in the shadow of potential instability, conflict and radioactive contamination from next door. But they see no choice other than to continue with their daily life, attempting to maintain the status quo.

Living with a nuclear Kim

Few have any illusion that Pyongyang can be pressured or talked into giving up its nuclear weapons. Despite Beijing’s official opposition to North Korea’s ongoing development of nuclear weapons, China has looked into the future and resigned itself to living with a nuclear-armed rogue neighbor, which nonetheless remains its client state. China will continue to hold its nose—and to keep the Kim regime alive in order to preserve an unstable and awkward geopolitical status quo. Because of that, the US may also find itself forced to accept that a nuclear-equipped North Korea is the least unpalatable option on the table.

This article originally appeared at Gavekal Research.