The same thing happened in 2006.
At the heart of North Korea’s seemingly reckless behavior is a strong desire to assert an independent economic and geopolitical role for itself in North Asia.
Lips and teeth rhetoric notwithstanding, North Korea and China have never been that close.
Kim Il-sung was Stalin’s client. China fought against the United States on North Korea’s behalf in the Korean War, but still resents the fact that this exercise in socialist solidarity forced the Communists to abandon their planned invasion of Taiwan and the reunification of the country.
North Korea’s serious economic problems—and its desperate reliance on China’s good offices--began when the Soviet Union broke up and Moscow abandoned its traditional patronage of Pyongyang.
North Korea has never behaved like a loyal ally of China’s, let alone a client.
At one tense moment in their relations, Pyongyang even threatened to open air links with Taipei in retaliation for Beijing’s lack of cooperativeness.
In the minds of the North Koreans, I would suspect that they see their nation as, potentially, another South Korea.
Indeed, the material foundation for an economic miracle in North Korea is stronger than South Korea’s.
It might be said that North Korea’s economic avatar is China’s state-mediated growth, while South Korea relies on a resource-poor, globalized Japanese-style hypereconomy whose long-term sustainability is open to question.
Unlike South Korea, North Korea has abundant supplies of hydropower and coal energy.
The canard that North Korea is “dependent on China for most of its energy supplies” needs to be laid to rest periodically.
In 2006, I took a close look at the North Korean conundrum in a post entitled Intimate Enemies: Pyongyang, Beijing, and the Nuclear Factor.
It gives an idea of the risibly small import needs of North Korea, in contrast to the immense foreign food and energy inputs required to sustain the South Korean economy.
According to the Federation of American Scientists, North Korea has significant reserves of coal and hydropower and continues:
Oil accounts for about 6% of total North Korean primary energy consumption, and is largely limited to non-substitutable uses such as motor gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Oil is imported from China and the Soviet Union by pipeline, and from Iran by sea.
North Korea relies on coal for power generation, exports over $100 million of coal to China per annum, and even exports electric power to China on occasion, presumably when it is desperate for a quick shot of foreign exchange. Last year it imported about $286 million dollars worth of petroleum products from China, mostly crude.
In contrast, South Korea imports 70% of its grain and 97% of its energy needs—a combined tab of about $20 billion per year—to keep its economy humming.
The difference, of course, is that South Korea is integrated into the global capitalist economy and easily generates the hard currency needed for its imports. North Korea went the other way, allying with a socialist bloc that collapsed catastrophically in 1989 and now has to scramble to come up with the foreign exchange to finance its imports.
It is certainly true that North Korea is dependent on China for most of its petroleum needs.
China’s insistence on doling out diesel and other products only in return for hard currency has certainly contributed to the devastation of North Korea’s agriculture and industry.
Energy supply is undoubtedly a sore point in the already fraught relations between the two countries and I suspect China is squeamish about playing the petroleum card any more aggressively than it already has, lest it provoke a furious outburst from Pyongyang.
The partial energy blockage is, in one sense, counterproductive. It feeds the North Korean elite’s sense of grievance and provides it with a useful external scapegoat for its enormous troubles.
I think it would be worth considering that North Korea’s highly disciplined, militarized autocracy is nationalistic and patriotic does not consider itself a collection of criminal fiends guzzling imported cognac while dancing on the crumbling bones of its suffering citizens.
It considers itself a society that, if it was able to shed its pariah status and rejoin the family of nations as a PRC-style mixed socialist export-oriented economy (with an impoverished and ill-nourished workforce grateful for any wage above the starvation level), would probably thrive and have no problem importing the relatively insignificant energy inputs it needs to survive.
North Korea wants improved relations with the United States, and to engage in a controlled opening of its economy and society. In return, Pyongyang is offering itself to Washington as a counterweight to Beijing in North Asia.
The dirty secret of U.S.—North Korea relations is that the United States, unwilling to take positive measures that would prolong the survival of the Kim Jung Il regime, let alone midwife its return to respectability in the international community, has decided to let the situation fester—and the North Korean people rot in a misery that is probably eminently reversible.