Beijing, China has released a new list of items banned for export to North Korea, ranging from wind tunnels to plutonium, following a new round of United Nations sanctions and complaints from U.S. President Donald Trump that Beijing was not doing enough to pressure its communist neighbor.
The step was seen by one leading expert on North Korea as an attempt to show that China is fully meeting its commitments, and to pre-empt any moves by the U.S. to punish Chinese companies that deal with the North. However, the expert questioned whether the ban would have much effect in slowing a North Korean nuclear weapons program that is already well advanced and gathering momentum.
A statement from the Chinese Commerce Ministry late Wednesday said the items included dual-use technologies that could aid the North’s programs to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as well as the missiles to deliver them.
While largely comprising specialty chemicals and rare alloys, the list also includes computer software, machinery, high-speed cameras, aerospace engines and six-axle truck chassis. Grinding machines, molds and radio transmitting equipment also joined plutonium and wind tunnels among the banned items.
The ban on “dual-use measures related to weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery” takes effect immediately, the announcement said.
There was no evidence that the extensive list of items was prompted by anything other than the U.N. Security Council resolution passed in November in response to the North’s missile test in September.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Thursday said sanctions should be “implemented in an all-round and balanced way” and China was merely meeting its obligations.
However, the official Communist Party newspaper Global Times suggested the timing had to do with the upcoming weeklong Lunar New Year holiday, a period during which North Korea last year staged a missile test and in 2013 held its third underground nuclear test.
The announcement “is also a warning for the North Korean side not to conduct another round of nuclear testing during China’s Spring Festival this year,” it quoted Yanbian University expert Jin Qiangyi as saying, using another term for the Lunar New Year.
China is North Korea’s largest source of trade and aid, but has grown increasingly frustrated by its defiance of U.N. demands that it end missile tests and development of nuclear weapons.
Although generally dismissive of sanctions, Beijing has signed on to successive rounds under the U.N. Security Council, while continuing to advocate a resumption of six-nation nuclear negotiations hosted by China that have been on ice since North Korea withdrew in 2009.
Beijing’s unique relationship with North Korea’s hereditary dictatorship has generated expectations that it holds the key to ending the threat from North Korea, something Chinese officials and scholars call a vast exaggeration. China also firmly opposes any measures that could lead to the toppling of Kim Jong Un’s regime, something it fears would lead to a massive wave of refugees crossing into China and the presence of South Korean and U.S. troops along its border.
Despite that, Trump complained in a tweet earlier this month that China “won’t help with North Korea,” even while it benefits from commercial links with the U.S.
Trump’s nominee to be secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has spoken in starker terms. He accused China of making “empty promises” on North Korea and warned of U.S. sanctions on Chinese companies found to be violating U.N. Security Council resolutions, recently beefed up to tighten restrictions on North Korean coal imports.
“If China is not going to comply with those U.N. sanctions then it’s appropriate for the United States to consider actions to compel them to comply,” Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month.
The U.S. is concerned that North Korea may already be able to arm short-range and mid-range missiles with atomic warheads, threatening U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, and American forces in each country.
Some experts believe North Korea is likely to have the capability to strike the U.S. mainland before Trump’s four-year term is up.
China feels like it has not received credit for its previous concessions over North Korea, said John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul. Trump’s “antagonistic rhetoric” has only strengthened those feelings and China is now seeking to avoid U.S. secondary sanctions on its companies, Delury said.
China also has its own security concerns over North Korea’s programs and would have banned the items in any case, he said.
However, given that previous bans and other sanctions appear to have had little effect, the latest move “won’t be the game-changer that people are looking for,” Delury said.
“North Korea is already pretty far along, they’ve got momentum,” he said. “In technical terms, they’re pretty self-reliant at this point and don’t need to buy things `over the table’ from China.”