Beijing edging back from North Korea pressure campaign
Air China resumes flights to Pyongyang; border town bustles with underground trade in anticipation of sanctions relief
Last November, coinciding with US President Donald Trump’s state visit to Beijing, China’s flagship airline indefinitely suspended flights to North Korea.
The decision by Air China, citing poor demand, came amid moves by China in cooperation with the United States as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign against its neighbor and ostensible ally.
The airline has now announced that flights have been resumed, as momentum builds for China and North Korea to hit the reset button on their relationship.
Signs that Pyongyang’s alienation from its most important economic partner was nearing an end first came in March when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited China for the first time. His trip to Beijing, though termed “unofficial,” had most of the trappings of an official state visit. It also marked Kim’s first visit overseas and his first meeting with another head of state, Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Kim met with Xi in China again several weeks later, in another sign that the bilateral relationship was thawing from its six-year freeze. The souring of relations began when Kim shrewdly rebuffed Chinese overtures upon taking office.
While Trump said this week that he no longer wishes to use the term “maximum pressure” when referring to North Korea, the White House has tried to play down a shift. The administration’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders said on Monday that harsh sanctions will remain in place, “unless North Korea denuclearized.”
Meanwhile, reports from China’s border with North Korea continue to paint a picture of busy commerce between the two countries, even as sanctions remain officially in place.
Jane Perlez, reporting from the border town of Hunchun for The New York Times, published another report on Tuesday on the local situation. People in the area, according to Perlez, are optimistic that a boom in business between China and the North is on its way.
While much of the business activity conducted across the border requires effort to skirt sanctions, expectations for that inconvenience to be lifted are growing.
“The customs paperwork needed to resume direct shipments of crab and frozen seafood has already been completed and is ready to be submitted as soon as sanctions are lifted,” Perlez said of the trade in sought-after food from North Korea’s unpolluted waters. “That will make the Russia detour unnecessary, said one seller as he watched over a dozen tanks filled with green crabs.”
“We have been told it will be soon,” he said.