China did not export crude oil to North Korea in February, customs data showed, the first absence of deliveries since the same month in 2012. But data has also shown no exports in February 2011. Data for March has not been released yet.
In any case, the question remains: how to punish a country which has so few links with the outside world?
“For an economically closed country whose government does not make the people’s welfare its mission, the effects of sanctions will not be obvious,” the Economic Observer, a well-regarded weekly Chinese business newspaper, wrote in a commentary on its website on Monday.
“It’s like trying to tell a thin person to watch their weight.”
This isn’t to say that Beijing’s hands are totally tied.
Having backed the latest U.N. sanctions, China could enforce them to exert just enough pain to get North Korea back to the negotiating table but not enough to cause the country to implode, the widely read and influential tabloid the Global Times said on Monday.
“This pressure should not cause a horrible worsening of the domestic situation in North Korea but let them know how important outside aid is to the country,” wrote Yang Lei, an international relations professor at Tianjin’s Nankai University.
Beijing would never do anything as drastic as cutting trade ties, as some U.S. politicians have demanded, because of the impact it would have on China, said Sun Zhe, a China-U.S. expert at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University.
To ease tensions, Washington should end the military exercises with South Korea that have riled the North and offer to hold talks with Pyongyang, he added.