Less than two weeks ago, the government of North Korea launched a ballistic missile that flew over the Japanese island of Hokkaido before falling into the ocean. Last week the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the North’s official name, threatened to launch and explode a nuclear-tipped missile into the Pacific Ocean.
Whether the threat is credible depends on whether the DPRK is able to mount a miniaturized nuclear weapon on a missile, something that it has yet to prove and upon which observers’ opinions vary.
What is certain is that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is willing to conduct a war of words with U.S. President Donald Trump. The verbal missiles fired between the two leaders last week were intercontinental and have stoked fears that the DPRK will take further action that Trump will consider provocative enough to require more than a tweeted response.
North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, in New York for the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, said last week of the threat to test a nuclear weapon:
It could be the most powerful detonation of an H-bomb in the Pacific. We have no idea about what actions could be taken as it will be ordered by leader Kim Jong-un.
One perhaps unexpected response to the North Korean threat was Saturday’s announcement that China will no longer buy North Korean textiles and will limit its exports of refined oil products to the DPRK to 2 million barrels a year beginning January 1. According the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) China currently exports about 2.2 million barrels of refined products a year to North Korea.
Exports of crude oil are not included in the reduction, and crude oil represents a larger portion of China’s exports to the North Koreans. The EIA estimates China exports about 5.5 million barrels a year of crude oil to the DPRK.
The most recent sanctions, imposed shortly before the missile test two weeks ago, include a ban on textile exports from North Korea and a reduction of 30% in imports of oil. The goal is to starve the DPRK of both fuel and hard currency to fund its missile and nuclear weapons developments. China had not agreed either of the terms until Saturday.
An earlier UN Security Council resolution prohibited all exports of North Korean coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood. The sanctions also included more restrictions on the country’s Foreign Trade bank and forbid North Korea from sending more workers abroad.
Economically, North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its population of about 25 million lives in extreme poverty, with annual estimated per capita income of $1,800, according to the CIA Factbook.
Because the DPRK’s economy is highly dependent on trade with China, China’s decision to support the new UN sanctions was seen as an important step in forcing North Korea to heel. About 75% of the country’s $4.15 billion in exports are sent to China and 76% of its $4.8 billion in imports come from China.
According to the CIA Factbook, North Korea is a source country for men, women and children who are subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Workers are not free to change jobs and “tens of thousands” of North Koreans, including children, are held in prison camps and subjected to forced, heavy labor.