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A North Korea without Chinese oil supplies

2016-01-15 13:17 | Kim Ga Young

If China were to pull the plug on its oil supply to North Korea as a countermeasure against Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test, what kind of impact would it have on the country? Most agree that a halt in oil would trigger a ‘mass oil panic’ across the Party, military, and state, crippling all agencies, given that the North currently imports more than 90 percent of its oil from its neighbor. In an event such as this, a still young leadership that lacks stability would not be able to hold up for a week, according to experts. 

The oil that goes into the North either after for free or at a cost first goes to a storage facility in Baekma, North Pyongan Province (near Sinuiju) and is stored there until being supplied to state agencies, transport-related factories, and military bases, which have priority. The main route of supply is through the pipeline that runs from China’s Dandong to the North’s Baekma. The first area this stored oil is then sent to is Pyongyang by train and truck after which it is delivered to main Party agencies, transport, and shipping bodies. 

Next in line is Nampo as well as ports and military bases near the west coast. The supply in Baekma is also transported to another storage facility in Munchon on the east coast, which provides for state enterprises, agencies, and military bases in that area. In short, oil from China powers nearly all of the North’s state entities, military facilities, and factories, explaining why cutting off that supply would grind the country to a halt. 

A North Korean defector who once worked within the oil supply chain speculates the suspension would create conditions that are so bad Kim Jong Un would be desperate to restore the supply. Although the North has a three-month emergency supply, that is reserved for times of war and would therefore be untouchable. 

The freeze would disrupt operations within the Central Party, related agencies, administrative bodies, and the military. Cadres of all affiliations would face no heat in their offices, making it hard to work in a normal capacity, and their movements would also be restricted as there would be no gasoline or diesel to run their cars. Workers would also not have a means to get around, likely shuttering state agencies and factories. 

When it comes to people’s daily lives, the absence of oil would ‘completely cripple’ things. All vehicles would not be able to run, slamming the brakes on manufacturing, as raw materials would fail to be delivered. Also, rice and other foods would be hard to procure, leading to a spike in prices and threatening people’s livelihoods. Most importantly, diesel trains that provide the backbone of distribution would stop in their tracks. Kim Jong Un’s push to provide for fish for the public would also fall flat on its face without the means to transport fisheries caught at sea let alone the boats that can go out to fish..

The military will also face a massive blow. All of the North’s weapons that were built on astronomical costs will be rendered useless. Without fuel, everything from armored vehicles, to naval vessels and fighter jets would not be able to run. Not only that, soldiers would be stranded without a flow of supplies, dragging down their morale. 

“If China’s oil supply is cut off, every aspect of people’s lives across each sector-- the military, central agencies, ports, and factories--would shut down,” a high-level North Korean defector who asked for anonymity told Daily NK. He added that if consumer prices start to climb due to a lack of oil people would blame the nuclear test and collective anger would mount against the leadership.

Russia and some countries in the Middle East have sporadically provided oil to the North, but they are not at all reliable. The pipeline connecting the North’s Rason City with Russia is in poor condition, which would make it difficult to use for a continual supply. Also, oil shipments from Vladivostok, which come on tankers through to Munchon on the east coast as well as Heungnam and Chongjin, only make up roughly 10 percent of the country’s entire supply, according to defectors. The amount shipped in from the Middle East is also said to be almost negligible. 

“The North could try to request oil from other countries as an alternative, but it doesn’t have a lot of tankers and it would be costly, so that wouldn’t be an easy option,” Yang Uk, research fellow at the Korea Security and Defense Forum, explained. “It can try to strike a deal with Russia by offering mining rights, but winning over oil supply is not something that’s done that easily. It would still put a significant dent in the amount (that had come from China), and all the while it’s trying to persuade Russia, the damage will be massive,” he said. 

The question is whether Beijing would willingly partake in such actions that could trigger instability in the North, as it would remain wary about the negative implications this may have for its own stability. This is why a lot of interest will remain on which direction China decides to take with its oil supply into the North, following Pyongyang’s unwelcome nuclear test.