Following North Korea’s nuclear test in January, trade over the China-North Korea border dropped dramatically, according to newly released satellite imagery. The revelation has led experts to conclude that Beijing has been quietly punishing Kim Jong Un by cutting off the flow of funds to his regime.
There’s no question that the China-North Korea relationship has been strained since Kim assumed power in 2011. Against Beijing’s wishes, the young leader has revved up North Korea’s pace of missile tests and detonated two nuclear devices, one in 2013 and then again this January. In 2013, Kim executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek, who had been China’s main contact in Pyongyang.
After the latest nuclear explosion, Secretary of State John F. Kerry publicly called on China to end “business as usual” with North Korea. Publicly, Beijing rejected being told by the United States how to handle its client state. Behind the scenes, it appears Beijing was doing just that.
Victor Cha, director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), led a team of researchers that procured and analyzed the new satellite imagery as part of their project, a website and database dedicated to demystifying what’s going on inside the world’s most secretive state.
“It shows that China pursues things in their own way when it comes to North Korea, not because the U.S. or the U.N. tells them to,” said Cha. “The good news is that they are squeezing them more than we were led to expect.”
CSIS worked with imagery analysts at the commercial satellite firm DigitalGlobe to collect and examine satellite photos of several key trade-related areas on both sides of the China-North Korea border. Satellite images showed a “substantive reduction of economic activity on the Sino-North Korean border” as evidenced by a huge drop in the number of rail cars at the stations, trucks in customs areas, trucks on the bridge and undocked boats in the Yalu River.