No one knows how the current crisis involving North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats will play out. But there is one thing clear: China is taking pains to put unprecedented pressure on the North.
As usual, signs of changes in Beijing’s position on the North come from its state-controlled media.
One such media outlet, the Global Times, ran an editorial last week which must have grabbed the attention of all parties concerned -- not least North Korea. It suggested the possibility of Beijing condoning a US surgical strike against a nuclear facility in North Korea.
It said Beijing would oppose if Washington launches a military attack on North Korea’s nuclear facility through “diplomatic channels,” but won’t get “involved through military action.”
The editorial did not forget to mention that Beijing would “never sit back and watch” if the US and South Korean forces cross the Korean border and destroy the regime in Pyongyang.
Nevertheless, it is a sea change for the state-controlled Chinese media to say that Beijing would only make verbal criticism of a US attack against its decadeslong communist ally. We are discussing the same government which, until recently, tried to find every excuse to flout pressure from the international community to exert influence to Pyongyang as its sole benefactor and economic lifeline.
The Global Times editorial is the latest in a series of signs that the Chinese government is taking a different approach this time. The Associated Press reported from Pyongyang that Chinese tourism companies are eliminating or offering fewer North Korea tours. Air China announced this month that it has discontinued its Beijing-Pyongyang route.
More importantly, China has been limiting imports of North Korean coal, a major source of foreign currency for the economically impoverished country. US President Donald Trump said last week that China turned back North Korean ships carrying coal, lauding the “big step” taken by Beijing to pressure Pyongyang.
Now Chinese experts and media controlled by the government publicly raise the possibility that China may impose an oil embargo if the North conducts another nuclear test. AP has reported that oil is already in short supply in Pyongyang.
All these developments come after Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this month. They did not announce any breakthrough, although Trump -- in the days leading up to their first summit -- had pressed Xi hard to play his due role to force the North to stop its nuclear and missile provocations.
But it is apparent that Trump and Xi -- through the summit and following telephone conversations -- have earned confidence in each other. Trump said Xi is “working hard” to increase pressure on Pyongyang.
Trump even announced that he will not name China a currency manipulator, linking the decision to his efforts to secure Beijing’s support for North Korea.
As if to demonstrate their quick-built bond and seemingly tacit agreement to work together on North Korea, Trump and Xi have held telephone talks twice since their summit in Florida.
Obviously, a Chinese president who listens to -- or at least talks frequently with -- the US president should offer the North an unprecedented challenge. Instead of realizing what new situation it is under, however, North Korea still clings to its usual bellicose rhetoric -- against not only the US but also China.
The North’s state media said that if China -- it referred to it as a “neighboring country”-- keeps applying sanctions on it while dancing to someone else’s tune, it should get itself ready to face “catastrophic consequences” in their bilateral relations.
In yet another editorial, the Global Times offered pointed advice to the North. It said Pyongyang needs to “revise” its understanding that North Korea is a sentinel and on guard duty for China, therefore, whatever it does, Beijing has no other alternative except to endorse Pyongyang.
If North Korea really thinks this, it is making a mistake, the editorial said. We could not agree more.