Everybody agrees the North Korea crisis is heading to a boiling point after Pyongyang tested a hydrogen bomb on Sunday - its most powerful to date. But as the UN Security Council is preparing to vote on a new set of sanctions - the most draconic yet - experts say the battered North Korean people might, yet again, take the brunt of the blow.
Beijing (dpa) - Russia, the United States and China can agree on one thing: the North Korean conflict is at a turning point. Their perspectives differ, however.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned of a "planetary catastrophe and a great number of victims" as Western powers are pushing for harsher sanctions as retribution for leader Kim Jong Un‘s determination to build a nuclear arsenal. Putin has called sanctions in this situation "useless and inefficient."
The US, on the other hand, is calling for the strongest possible sanctions and wants the 15-member UN Security Council to conduct a vote on Monday.
Kim is "begging for war," said US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, warning that her country‘s tolerance for provocations was wearing thin.
"North Korea wants to push the crisis to a climax," said Jin Qiangyi, head of the international politics department at Yanbian University in Jilin province, which neighbours North Korea. "They‘re doing this to force the US and China to make a strategic choice."
Pyongyang is daring Washington to either strike or take a step back, Jin told dpa. And it‘s also forcing China to decide whether it will implement tougher, US-proposed sanctions, or change its strategy.
China was responsible for 88 per cent of North Korean trade last year, according to the Washington-based think tank Peterson Institute for International Economics, which quotes data from KOTRA, a South Korean trade promotion agency.
Moreover, China‘s trade with North Korea grew from 2015 to 2016, and again in the first half of 2017. Beijing‘s trade with Pyongyang increased 10.5 per cent in the first half of the year to 2.55 billion dollars, according to Chinese customs data.
China halted imports of North Korean coal in February due to council-imposed sanctions and says it has limited imports of iron ore.
But the toughest sanctions imposed on the regime yet were passed just weeks ago - following Pyongyang‘s launch of two intercontinental ballistic missile. The latest set is designed to cut the country‘s export revenue by a third.
Some say it‘s not nearly enough.
"I think that stronger sanctions are now the last option and should at least be tried," said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit, adding that current sanctions are not pressuring the North Korean government enough.
New, tougher sanctions will need time to work, however, because Pyongyang has stockpiles of oil, Biswas said.
With bans on North Korean exports on minerals and seafood already in place, all that‘s left to be sanctioned are textile exports, oil imports and income from North Korean workers overseas, experts say.
Textiles and apparel represented two of North Korea‘s top five exports to China in 2015, according to KOTRA, and they have been completely untouched by the UN - until now.
But perhaps the biggest blow to the regime would come from a complete ban on oil imports.
North Korean daily oil consumption is about a fifth of what it was in 1991, according to the US Energy Information Administration. At 15,000 barrels of oil per day in 2016, the impoverished nation consumed 173 times less oil than South Korea.
China exports about 500,000 tons of oil annually, mostly through a cross-border pipeline to a North Korean refinery in Sinuiju.
Beijing is believed to have already curbed its petrol exports to Pyongyang for fear that they won‘t get paid, Biswas said.
Even if the UN decides to cap oil exports to North Korea, that would have limited effect on its military and nuclear programme, according to a report by Peter Hayes and David von Hippel of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, a California-based non-profit.
Pyongyang would likely curtail petrol use for most of its people; partially substitute oil use for its military with other energy sources such as coal; and rely on its oil stockpiles, Hayes and von Hippel wrote.
"The immediate primary impacts of responses to oil and oil products cut-offs will be on welfare," Hayes and von Hippel said. "People will be forced to walk or not move at all, and to push buses instead of riding in them. There will be less light in households due to less kerosene, and less on-site power generation.
"There will be more deforestation to produce biomass and charcoal used in gasifiers to run trucks, leading to more erosion, floods, less food crops, and more famine. There will be less diesel fuel to pump water to irrigate rice paddies, to process crops into foodstuffs, to transport food and other household necessities, and to transport agricultural products to markets before they spoil."
Although civilians would be the first to suffer, cutting oil could eventually lead to the collapse of Kim Jong Un‘s administration, said Yu Yingli, a Korean Peninsula expert.
"But the sanctions are intended for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons development, not for its collapse," she said. "If we draw an analogy that North Korea is a cancer tumour - because it is always causing pain and trouble to surrounding countries - Can you take the risk if this tumour ruptures now?"