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
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
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.