FACT CHECK: Has China Done ‘NOTHING’ About North Korea?

Kush Desai | Fact Check Reporter

President Donald Trump claimed that China has done “NOTHING for us with North Korea” in a Friday tweet. His tweet comes in the context of North Korea’s recent test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that experts say puts much of the United States in North Korea’s strike zone.

Trump has long asserted – including before his presidential bid and during the GOP presidential nominee debates – that the key to resolving tension with North Korea lay in working with China. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson echoed this sentiment during his Senate confirmation hearings, and Trump has actively pursued this policy prescription with Chinese leadership.

Verdict: False

China has technically taken action to stymie North Korea and its burgeoning nuclear strike capabilities, with numerous economic and diplomatic crackdowns since Trump took office. But these responses do not mark a significant departure from previous Chinese policy towards the hermit nation. China has the capability to do significantly more to pressure its neighbor.

Fact Check:

In the wake of North Korea’s successful missile launch in July, Trump expressed his disappointment with China through his “NOTHING” tweet.

China, however, has not literally done “NOTHING” to stop North Korea since Trump’s inauguration.

Chinese officials abruptly announced in mid-February – less than a month after Trump’s inauguration – that China would suspend coal imports from North Korea, Reuters reported. The sudden suspension exceeded requirements set by a 2016 United Nations (UN) Security Council sanction. North Korea is China’s fourth largest exporter of coal, the Washington Post reports. The totalitarian state relies on coal exports as a major source of foreign exchange earnings.

In late April, following Trump’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier that month, Tillerson announced China had warned North Korea and threatened it with unilateral sanctions should it carry out more nuclear tests.

In late June, two months after China’s warning, Reuters reported that the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) cut off jet fuel and petroleum exports to North Korea. Detailed North Korean trade data is hard to come by, but North Korean Economy Watch suggests China and Russia are North Korea’s largest suppliers of fuel.

On the surface, it’s clear that China has not done “NOTHING.” Its economic and diplomatic measures, however, do not reflect a stark departure from previous slaps on the wrist by China. The scope of its economic and diplomatic measures, moreover, do not reflect the full capabilities of China to crack down on North Korea either.

“Ever since 2006, with the first nuclear test, the Chinese have increased their willingness very very marginally to put more pressure on North Korea,” Bonnie Glaser, Director of the Center for Strategic & International Studies’ (CSIS) China Power Project, explained to The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Acknowledging that China has complied “with some [sanctions] but not others,” Glaser went on to explain to TheDCNF that the two nations “continue to obviously increase trade.” Trump agrees, criticizing China in a July 5 tweet for the fact that its trade with North Korea “grew almost 40% in the first quarter.” This is in line with trade data released by the Chinese government, according to The New York Times.

China’s actions since the Trump presidency to ostensibly pressure North Korea, moreover, are not unprecedented in recent history.

China has cut North Korean coal imports before, including as recently as December 2016, Reuters reports. It has also cut off fuel exports to the fuel-starved nation, including when it did so back in 2003 to force North Korea to join “six-party talks” on stemming its nuclear program, according to ForeignPolicy.com.

Additionally, China has previously coordinated with the U.S. to use diplomatic means to pressure North Korea. It was a member of the aforementioned six-party talks that were aimed at convincing North Korea to suspend its controversial nuclear program. After the talks failed, the top Chinese diplomat in the talks said in an interview that North Korea had “signed its own death warrant,” Pulse News, a South Korean media outlet, reported.

In this historical context, China’s actions since Trump are not a marked departure from historical norms. They instead reflect a continuation of China’s trend of marginally increasing its pressure on North Korea each time the American leadership insists China crack down on North Korea that Bonnie Glaser explained to TheDCNF.

Nicholas Eberstadt, the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), underscored to TheDCNF that “There’s so little transparency… We in the outside world have never gotten an unambiguous report on the scale of China’s economic support for North Korea.”

Glaser similarly discussed other, less publicized forms of economic support to North Korea that China has not changed or could do more about. She noted how, despite the fuel export suspension, crude oil continues to flow through Chinese oil pipelines into North Korea. Glaser also noted that many Chinese banks and companies enable North Korea to subvert sanctions that block its access to the international financial system. She mentioned recent studies that concluded that North Korea has laundered, at a minimum, $300 million through these sorts of less publicized ties.

The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that China accounts for around 90 percent of North Korea’s (legitimate) trade volume, including much of North Korea’s crucial food imports.

Although admitting that China should stem its subsidization of “the world’s largest open-air prison camp,” Eberstadt cautioned against Trump’s longstanding North Korea foreign policy prescription. “Our new policy seems to be to nag China to some degree so that China will nag North Korea to some degree to behave more to our – the U.S.’s – liking… We’ve been doing this for 25 years, since the end of the cold war. Each time, the new American administration in greater or lesser measure has found itself suckered,” Eberstadt explained to TheDCNF.

Trump’s claim that China has done “NOTHING,” nevertheless, is on the surface false. China has indeed carried out numerous economic or diplomatic pressure tactics against North Korea, questions of their effectiveness or possible severity in a historical context aside.

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Kush Desai

Fact Check Reporter

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