China’s Interests, Actors, and the Implementation of Sanctions against North Korea

Following the first nuclear test by North Korea in 2006, sanctions were unanimously authorized by the UN Security Council (UNSC). Their stated aims were to dissuade North Korea from its development of nuclear capabilities and promote its return to dialogue with regional actors in the Six-Party Talks.1 Since 2006, further resolutions have extended the scope of sanctions: 1874 in 2009, 2087 in February 2013, and 2094 in March 2013. In each case, China voted in favor and verbally condemned actions by the DPRK,2 (albeit with differing degrees of enthusiasm).3 Nevertheless, questions have persisted regarding China’s commitment to achieving the stated aims of these sanctions, particularly concerning its approach to implementation. They continue because of statements which emphasize “sanctions in themselves are not the end”40 and the way to resolve the nuclear issue and pursue peace and security on the peninsula is through dialogue and diplomacy.5 Furthermore, China stated objections to the inspection of cargos travelling to and from the DPRK,6 which raise doubts over the extent of China’s dedication to implementation.

Running in parallel to discussion of China’s approval of sanctions is a literature specifically addressing China’s relationship with North Korea. Within this group of works it has become a part of the cannon of knowledge to acknowledge that China has many interests with respect to this particular neighbor. However, these two literatures rarely substantively come together; how these interests play out once sanctions are approved by the UNSC remains a missing link in the discussion. Reflections on these multiple interests—more often than not—serve as a means of “explaining” China’s divergent behavior, comprehending that the many interests in the mix is as much as many seem to understand about China’s behavior.

Rather than being co-opted into this approach, this article suggests that by exploring China’s post-UNSC actions a clearer understanding of the relationship between these interests and activities can be gained. Feeding into this argument is the idea that it is similarly insufficient and inaccurate to describe China’s approach towards implementation of these sanctions as a clear case of sanctions busting. To do so implies (intentionally or not) a singular mens rea at work in China’s approach. Rather, it is more accurate to underscore that—as is well documented—“China’s” many interests regarding North Korea are played out in how implementation of sanctions happens.” Crucially, it is also fundamental to acknowledge that some of these interests are held by different actors within Chinese foreign policy making; so it would be rational to acknowledge that they enter the political space at different stages of the process. Thus, it is necessary not only to recognize China’s many interests, but also to seek to understand the practical outcome of these interests in implementing these sanctions.

China’s Interests

According to the literature, sanctions are intended to compel a target state into compliance with international norms.7 In this case, they have been imposed with “a view to convincing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to comply with its Security Council-imposed obligations, to return to the Six-Party Talks, and to take significant irreversible steps to carry out its undertakings pursuant to previous Six-Party Talk agreements.”8 Moreover, the resolutions all state that it should denuclearize and return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.9

Based on the existing wisdom on sanctions, China, having approved sanctions against the DPRK, has the same aims in authorizing them as other states in the UNSC. However, given the criticism over China’s implementation of those sanctions,10 we should take seriously the argument that China’s purposes in authorization diverge from the statements in the resolution and that articles asserting China’s manifold interests are more significant than offering readers a catch-all argument to explain multi-faceted behavior. One reason for avid discussion of China’s votes in favor of sanctions is the assumption that these votes reflect a change in China’s approach towards the aims of sanctions against the DPRK, but, surely, this logic is overly reductive in treating expressions of China’s interests. This section briefly outlines the range of Chinese interests before the following section explores how these interests may continue to be expressed in the post-acceptance stage of sanctions activities. China has to walk a tightrope between differing and often competing interests. In a necessarily simplistic outline, I indicate that there are at least seven interests that it may at any time seek to pursue:11

  • (1) China does not want a nuclear capable DPRK.12
  • (2) China does not want the DPRK to collapse, triggering a flow of refugees or regional instability.13
  • (3) China is the DPRK’s closest ally and seeks to “protect” it from interference by the United Nations or the Western powers.14
  • (4) China needs to demonstrate that it is a responsible power.15
  • (5) China needs a stable periphery.16
  • (6) China has become increasingly frustrated and angry with the DPRK over missiles and nuclear capabilities.17
  • (7) China does not want another great power (the United States) on the peninsula18 (nor is it likely to want a unified Korea that has the potential to be a strategic threat to China and Chinese growth).19

Despite the use of the word “China” at the start of each of these interests, it does not necessarily follow that they are all interests equally held within the same sphere of Chinese foreign policy making. Indeed, it is clear that some of them may clearly be the purview of one particular force or another within the Chinese regime. If this assertion is correct, then it would naturally follow that at the stage that each grouping or set of actors within China’s foreign policy architecture engages directly with implementation of sanctions there may necessarily be some “tweaking” of which particular interest is at the forefront of the agenda.

China’s Interests, Actors, and the Implementation of Sanctions

This section seeks to establish that China’s many interests in relations with North Korea persist after the acceptance of sanctions in the UNSC; hence, discussions of China’s position in that particular forum should be properly situated within a broader context, and that there are many actors not only in the making of foreign policy20 but also in the interpretation and implementation of those policies. In seeking to make these points, I focus on three areas of implementation and, in each, highlight that different interests continue to be served.

(a) China in New York: Post-UNSC actions in specifying the mandate

After a resolution on sanctions has been passed by the UNSC, a committee is created in order to monitor, manage, and oversee their implementation. In the case of some sanctions, a panel of experts is also formed to investigate and make recommendations to the committee. These offer opportunities to shape and modify elements of the sanctions criteria. For example, depending on the specifications in the resolution, sanctions committees can determine or add to the list of sanctioned entities or persons. Importantly, these committees and panels function in secrecy, and disclosure of their activities can vary in terms of both the number and regularity of their publications. Hence, in contrast to the mostly public realm of the Security Council, activities in these groupings are only open to a narrow audience.

As a result, whereas one of China’s interests may be fulfilled through a public vote and statement in the UNSC, i.e., being seen as a responsible power supporting sanctions against North Korea, this is not the only avenue within the UN structures for other interests to be fulfilled. Of course, this is a tool not just open to China but also may be used by all states involved in these post-UNSC activities. In the case of sanctions against North Korea, China is a member of both the committee pursuant to resolution 171821 and the panel of experts created through resolution 1874.22 Within both, China has the ability to make the sanctions more effective at achieving the stated goals of the resolutions or preventing additions from being made. Because of the lack of transparency within these groupings—for sound reasons, such as the collection and analysis of information and confidence in the confidentiality that draws out such evidence—, it is difficult to identify what measures were on the table and blocked, and, importantly, which states were responsible for failure to adopt a recommendation.

Despite the difficulties, there are a number of instances in the open source data that indicate the pivotal role that China has played in preventing the expansion of the list of sanctioned persons and entities—even when these expanded lists only seek to add different renderings of the names of the same individuals. Within the committee stage of implementation—where suggestions from the Panel of Experts (henceforth PoE) can be accepted or rejected—, China has been noted to play an active role. For example, in the 2015 committee meetings, the PoE set out a list of suggested additions to the list of sanctioned persons and entities. These additions are predominantly a list of alternative renderings of names that are already on the list, e.g., an alternative romanization of a name. At the meeting scheduled for August 2015 (actually held in September 2015), this list included names associated with the company Ocean Maritime Management Company (OMM)23 that has been under investigation by the PoE for many years and against which sanctions have already been approved. However, as noted in a report released before the scheduled committee meeting,

“…China has made clear it will not support designating entities or individuals that are close to the government and has reservations about the number of entities (34) linked to the OMM that the Panel has proposed be added to the sanctions list, it has expressed willingness to continue discussions on implementation of the Panel’s recommendations.”24

Despite the fact that this is a statement within an open source document, the audience for these reports is not the same as the audience of UNSC resolutions. As such, it is possible for China to maintain its very visible public presence within the formal vote in the UNSC that conforms to its interest in being a “responsible power,” but also to ensure the stability of the regime in Pyongyang by not allowing sanctions to reach too close to key government figures. A further point to note about this revelation is that there is a representative from China on the PoE, which approves reports and recommendations before being sent to the committee for consideration. In the 2012 report of the PoE, it is noted that the 2011 report was not publically released because the Chinese representative would not sign off on it, despite having been involved in the drafting of its contents.25 It is possible to read too much into such small details: however, they may suggest that in China’s engagement within the details of the sanctions regime foreign policy actors are important, and there are different levels of discretion open to them. This claim is supported by the use of phrases including “my capital says.” It may be the case that there is a sequencing of the order in which China’s interests are achieved as well as different groups of actors able to achieve different interests. Even within the Chinese mission to the United Nations, the individuals acting in each forum are different. In this case, it is not only that there is a sequence for pursuing interests, but that different actors hold different interests.

(b) China in its Capital: Translation of sanctions mandates into in-state actions
The capacity of states to implement sanctions regimes is an obvious factor in their effectiveness.26 As one interviewee noted, sanctions can be effectively implemented in North America or the European Union; however, for other regions of the world, sanctions are more difficult to implement.27 Indeed, to some extent the type of regime also plays a part in this difficulty; it is often noted that although a common Western perception of China is as a monolithic state with firm central control, this image is misleading. The organization of the state and its ability to control some companies is much more limited than would be expected by the West. Frequently in Africa, the Chinese government receives condemnation for the actions of some companies, but it has little ability to actually control or change their behavior. Similar problems may occur regarding shipping companies and banks within China.28

There are two key questions to be considered: How does the Chinese government translate or interpret the sanctions listings into domestic laws and procedures at a national level and then report information back to the PoE and committee? And how effectively can China control companies, provinces, and individuals with an interest in trade with North Korea? In looking at the first of these, it is important to emphasize that China does not agree with the inspection of cargo going to or from North Korea. This is the first hurdle for claims that China is fully supporting sanctions. Since Beijing has stated its objections to the inspection of vessels going to or from the DPRK, its commitment to the sanctions regime is obviously questionable. This is particularly important for determining whether sanctions will be effective in achieving the goal of a non-nuclear DPRK, but it is a significant indicator also of the power of diverse interests that are served at different stages of the implementation of the sanctions regime.

The bulk of cargo travelling to or from the DPRK is passing through a Chinese port, which places significant responsibility on customs officers to inspect and interdict items and people on the sanctions list. In addition, it is necessary for the government to provide a list for these border agents to use of sanctioned items, e.g., of “luxury goods”; however, what counts as a luxury good is left to each state to determine. Some states have created a list of items they consider to be “luxury goods,”29 but others–including China—have not. However, there are indications of what China counts as a luxury. For example, it has not counted a ski lift as a luxury good, but Canada counted snowmobiles as a luxury.30 Such goods can help to maintain the stability of the regime in North Korea; therefore, a liberal interpretation of what counts as a luxury can contribute to meeting a key Chinese interest, despite its UNSC vote.

One should not conclude that China has not implemented the letter of the sanctions approved against the DPRK. Indeed, in some cases it has implemented the exact letter of the sanctions regime and provided additional evidence of its compliance to the PoE, e.g., in the case of the provision of lumber trucks to Pyongyang that were subsequently used in the birthday parade for Kim Jong-il in 2013 to carry long-range missiles, China had gone as far as to get an end-user certificate to show it was told these trucks were to be used for the transport of lumber.31

The second hurdle is that different states have different codified relationships between international and domestic law.32 In some states, international law requires no domestic legislation to be enforced; in others, this is necessary—China is among the latter. So far there have been no indications that China has developed the corresponding laws to fully implement sanctions consistently at the national level. This is a responsibility of the government in Beijing—as is the creation of a list of luxury items—that if not achieved can undermine the consistency with which sanctions are implemented and, therefore, be used to achieve China’s interests in ensuring the stability of the regime in Pyongyang and “regional stability.”

(c) China in the Provinces: On the border implementation actions
In looking in more detail at the relationship between China and North Korea, we should not pay attention only to country to country economic relations that show North Korea is only a very small economic partner for China;33 provincial economic relations with the DPRK tell a different story, especially when viewed from the position of potential economic collapse in the DPRK if trade were interrupted.34 Thus, the decentralization of China’s economic development has a knock-on effect for China’s ability to control the implementation of sanctions across its land border with North Korea, especially for small or medium sized businesses or those operating as a front for a sanctioned North Korean entity.

In looking in more detail at the cross-border relations, the image becomes even more complex. In a study published in 2012, Noland, Lee, and Haggard, explore the nature of this trade and the potential limiting factor of a lack of institutional frameworks for facilitating trade.35 Indeed, within their study they highlight that the majority of trade is done by firms with fewer than 100 employees and with revenues of less than USD 12 million.36 More significantly, the lack of state-based institutional facilitation that their paper highlights as a limiting factor (or provides as a ceiling) for increased trade across the border suggests that there is a generally low level of control by Beijing in regulating these trade flows. Additional corroborative reports indicate that Beijing lacks control over trade across this border.37

Although these sources indicate permeability of the border area, suggesting difficulties for Beijing to implement sanctions, there are reasons for considering that more could be done. For example, since the publication of the 2012 report, the third Dandong China-North Korea trade fair has been held in October 2014, and a number of companies cited in the PoE’s reports have been participants.38 The creation of these fairs (largely by local government offices) firstly suggests that there are elements of institutionalization or at least collective organization of businesses to facilitate and overcome the ceiling of trade the writers of the report highlight. Secondly, these fairs suggest that controlling or influencing businesses may be easier than previously indicated, because there is an event at which communications can clearly take place, and these events are organized at least in part by the provinces in China. However, this calls into question the relationship between Beijing and local governments influencing businesses in this forum—especially as significant trade deals take place within the structure of the trade fair. The existence of such an avenue for Chinese control may be seen to undermine or at least weaken claims of the limited potential control of Beijing.39 A further event that may be seen to undermine the prospect of Beijing’s limited control is the involvement of foreign ministers’ statements and engagement with the development of the Dandong special economic zone in Liaoning province.4

In the border areas, interests regarding the flows of migrants from North Korea may assume the greatest importance. Indeed, for the local government officials this may be a primary concern in their relationship with North Korea. However, trade and the opportunities to develop these provinces are also of importance. As a result, the actors holding these as key interests are different from those pursuing other interests in Beijing or in New York. Additionally, these interests can be fulfilled through the way sanctions are implemented on the ground long after they have been approved in the UNSC.

Conclusions and Caveats

China’s multiple interests in relation to North Korea do not disappear after the approval of sanctions. Rather the actors championing different interests and the stage in implementation of sanctions that these interests can be achieved are sequenced in the processes that take place after votes in the UNSC. Awareness of this fact should contribute to overcoming some shortcomings in the existing discussions of China’s relationship to North Korea. One of the initial critiques of the literature on this topic is the need to understand the many phases and elements of “China’s” approaches to implementing sanctions.

Of the seven interests that this article listed at the start, at least four of them seem to be satiated through post-Council actions. Two of the three remaining interests have been already satisfied within the UNSC: the desire/need to publically rebuke the DPRK for testing missiles and nuclear capabilities and the need to be seen as a responsible power. The final interest listed—the desire not to have the US military on the Chinese border—is not directly achieved through the approaches to implementation discussed here. However, it is indirectly fulfilled by ensuring there is not a rapid collapse of the regime in Pyongyang.

This article has continued to use “China” as a singular entity, while expressing the multiple roles that this usage may envisage, suggesting the variety of forms that its foreign policy actors can take in respect to the DPRK. In addition to bringing together often segregated literatures on China and North Korea, Chinese foreign policy making, and the implementation of sanctions, this article has demonstrated the benefits that can be derived from focusing on a sequencing to the fulfilment of China’s multiple interests. Rather than seeking to show a hierarchy among these interests, it, in part because of the process of implementation, points to a sequencing of these potentially contradictory interests over time. Without any statements from China as to whether its position on North Korea will change, we have a tangible basis to test behavior. Instead of looking for one instance of a vote in favor of sanctions, we have a series of behaviors to compare.

Potentially a more significant contribution of this approach is the suggestion that there is a way to deepen understanding of the problems that China faces in implementing sanctions and at what stages they may be managed. With this in mind, a deeper and more extensive study along these lines may enable more concrete and achievable policy recommendations for states engaging with China on this issue.


1. United Nations Document S/RES/1718 (2006).

2. “China resolutely opposes DPRK nuclear test,” Xinhua, October 9, 2006,, accessed August 8, 2013; see also “China urges North Korea not to test missile,” China Daily, June 29, 2006, accessed Nov 1, 2013; Joseph Kahn, “Angry China is likely to toughen its stand on Korea,” The New York Times, October 10, 2006,, accessed November 1, 2013.

3. In 2006, China’s condemnation of the DPRK was almost immediate, and resolution 1718 was passed within days of the nuclear test. In contrast, resolution 1874 in 2009 took two weeks for China to approve. “Shades of Red: China’s debate over North Korea,” Asia Report, No. 179, Crisis Group, 2009.

4. United Nations Documents: S/PV.5551, 4; SC/8853, 4; United Nations Yearbook 2006, 446,, March 13, 2013.

5. United Nations Documents S/PV.5551, 4; S/PV.6141, 3.

6. “China does not approve of the practice of inspecting cargo to and from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We therefore have reservations about the relevant provisions of the resolutions,” United Nations Document S/PV.5551, 4; “I wish to stress that the issue of cargo inspection is complex and sensitive. Countries need to act prudently and in strict accordance with domestic and international law and on the condition of reasonable grounds and sufficient evidence.” United Nations Document S/PV.6141, 3.

7. David Cortright and George Lopez, “Bombs, Carrots, and Sticks: The use of incentives and sanctions” Arms Control Today 35, no. 2 (March 2005): 19-24 (full text also available from, accessed September 23, 2015); George Lopez and David Cortright, “Economic Sanctions and Human Rights: Part of the problem or part of the solution,” International Journal of Human Rights 1, no. 2 (1999): 1-25.

8. United Nations Document S/2010/571 (2010), 11 (paragraph 18).

9. See United Nations Documents: S/Res/1718 (2006); S/Res/1874 (2009); S/Res/2087 (2013); S/Res/2094 (2013).

10. China has been cited as being the key to success of sanctions against North Korea; however, it has failed to act on the resolutions with sufficient vigilance to ensure the sanctions are successful. Marcus Noland, “The (non) impact of UN sanctions on North Korea,” East-West Centre Working Papers, no. 98 (2009): 3-4; for a more extensive look at the trade links between China and the DPRK see: Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, “Engaging North Korea: the efficacy of sanctions and inducements,” in Etel Soingen, ed., Sanctions, Statecraft, and Nuclear Proliferation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 241-243.

11. This synthesis is derived from a number of sources. Key documents that discuss China’s multiple interests include Ren Xiao, “Rowing Together: A Chinese Perspective,” Issues and Insights 13, no. 9 (2013).

12. Dick K. Nanto and Mark E. Manyin, “China-North Korea Relations,” (CRS eport No. R41043) (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2010), fn10; “Top DPRK leader meets Chinese vice-president on relations,” Xinhua, July 26, 2013.

13. Abanti Bhattacharya, “North Korean Nuclear Crisis: Challenges and Options for China,” Strategic Analysis 30, no. 4 (October 2006); Gregory J. Moore, “How North Korea Threatens China’s interests: understanding China’s ‘duplicity’ on the North Korean Nuclear issue,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 8 (2008):1-29; North Koreans that are currently in the border area are already perceived to be potential problems for China’s security. See: Carla Freeman and Drew Thompson, China on the Edge: China’s Border Provinces and Chinese Security Policy (Centre for the National Interest and Johns Hopkins SAIS, April 2011), 25; Nanto and Manyin, 2010, 5.

14. China “offers diplomatic cover and minimizes any punishment that might be agreed upon by the international community,” Ralph A. Cossa and Brad Glosserman, “The ‘illogic’ of China’s North Korea policy,” Asia Times Online, May 19, 2012,; see also Jane Perlez, “China says it won’t forsake North Korea, despite support for UN sanctions,” The New York Times, March 9, 2013; Jasper Kim, “Will the China-NK alliance remain stable?” Global Times, February 17, 2013; Moore, 2012, 19; furthermore, this relationship is described by some as being “sealed in blood,” Freeman and Thompson, 2011, 5.

15. This is seen by some to be a prestige issue for China; Ding Gang, “More open North Korea an asset to China,” Global Times, May 1, 2013.

16. As China stated at the meeting on July 15, 2006, its first objective is to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula rather than preventing the development of nuclear capabilities, United Nations Document S/PV.5490 (2006), 5. Xi Jinping is quoted as saying in April 2013, ”No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain,” Jane Perlez and Choe Sang-Hun, “China Hints at Limits to North Korea Actions,” The New York Times, April 7, 2013; Malcolm Moore, “China and Russia urge North Korea to step back from missile launch,” The Telegraph, April 10, 2013; “Russia, China urge North Korea to drop rocket launch plan,” Reuters, December 3, 2012; “China urges North Korea not to test missile,” China Daily, June 29, 2006; David McNeill, “China warns North Korea it will not tolerate ‘troublemaking,’” The Independent, April 11, 2013.

17. Ben Blanchard, “China’s anger at North Korea overcomes worry over US stealth flights,” Reuters, April 1, 2013; Joseph Kahn, “Angry China is likely to toughen its stand on Korea,” The New York Times, October 10, 2006; also Moore, 2008.

18. Moore, 2008.

19. Bhattacharya, 2006.

20. The argument that there are many actors in Chinese foreign policy making can be found in a number of works, e.g., Linda Jacobsen and Dean Knox, New Foreign Policy Actors in China, SPIRI Policy Paper No. 26, September 2010; Gilbert Rozman, ed., Chinese Foreign Policy: Who Makes It, and How Is It Made? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); and, Shaun Breslin, “China and the South: Objectives, Actors and Interactions,” Development and Change 44, no. 6 (2014):1273-1294.

21. United Nations Document S/Res1718 (2006).

22. United Nations Document S/Res1874.

23. The Ocean Maritime Management Company has been investigated by the PoE since 2013 when the ship the Chong Chon Gang was interdicted in Panama and found to have sanctioned items on board encased in sugar. Since the interdiction, the PoE have continued their reports.

24. UN Security Council Report 2015, Monthly Forecast August 2015,, accessed September 18, 2015, 10.

25. United Nations Document S/2012.422, fn. 12.

26. The problems and costs of controlling private companies are highlighted in Daniel W. Drezner, “Bargaining, Enforcement, and Multilateral Sanctions: When is cooperation counterproductive?” International Organization 52, no. 1 (2000): 73-102.

27. Personal interview with the author, New York, February 1, 2013.

28. Breslin, 2014.

29. Both Japan and Australia keep Open access lists of “luxury goods”. For Australia’s list see: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea),”, accessed September 23, 2015; for a more detailed discussion of the implications of China’s approach to luxury goods see: Kevin Stahler, “In the lap of luxury” North Korea: Witness to Transformation, Peterson Institute, published April 29, 2015 at, accessed September 23, 2015.

30. United Nations Document S/2015/131, 42.

31. United Nations Document S/2013/337, para. 54.

32. It falls on the PoE in this case to find out whether appropriate laws are “on the books” in each country around the world; in many countries, there are anti-terrorism laws fit for this purpose, and in some countries international laws are, a priori, domestic laws.

33. Nanto and Manyin, 2010, 15-16.

34. Freeman and Thompson, 2011, 24.

35. Stephan Haggard, Jennifer Lee, and Marcus Noland, “Integration in the absence of institutions: China–North Korea Cross-Border exchange,” Asian Journal of Economics, no. 23 (2012): 130-145.

36. Ibid., 132.

37. Drew Thompson, Silent Partners: Chinese Joint Ventures in North Korea, US-Korea Institute at SAIS Report, February 2011.

38. An example is Ryonha Company and its various partners and alias, United Nations Documents S/2015/131, 66-67.

39. “DPRK woos investors at China expo,” Xinhua, October 20, 2014,, accessed May 14, 2015; “North Korea wins $1.3 billion investments pledges from China,” Chosun Ilbo, October 22, 2014,, accessed May 14, 2015.

40. China, North Korea to open border trade zone – media,” Xinhua, July 13, 2015,, accessed September 23, 2015.