China is by far North Korea’s largest trading partner, accounting for up to 90 percent of its trade flows. Therefore, how much the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign affects North Korea’s most crucial export and imports is primarily a function of China’s enforcement of sanctions. This essay argues that, while Chinese sanctions enforcement has been relatively stringent in the era of “maximum pressure,” the PRC has sought to ensure stability and help North Korea avoid strenuous hardship by adjusting its fuel supplies according to geopolitical circumstances, among other factors. The fluctuation in Chinese fuel supplies over the past 18 months suggests that Beijing has been opening and closing its tap largely according to its national security priorities, rather than a robust and abiding commitment to comply with the letter and spirit of the international sanctions regime.
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