Important corrections have been posted here, new information was brought to our attention shortly after this article was posted, and the update, not this original article, should be read for data and conclusions.
As DPRK-Mongolian oil ties develop, the potential for serious PRC-DPRK friction and conflict will increase. If HBOil and the DPRK’s oil exploration proves fruitful and oil wells start to produce, North Korea’s oil-hungry neighbor will undoubtedly take notice and want in on the game. China and the DPRK already have a history of border friction, and recent China-Vietnamese energy/border conflicts could be portents of future conflicts in Korea Bay.
China and North Korea have rarely actually shared the amicable and harmonious relationship that outside observers frequently claim. Despite the still-active Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance and the PRC’s claim of China and North Korea being as close ‘as lips and teeth,’ the two have clashed over almost everything, ranging from ideological and socialist interpretations to, more relevantly, land and maritime border demarcations. While the Mt. Baekdu claim issue is probably the most well-known PRC-DPRK border dispute, it actually extends far west into the Korea Bay and Yellow/West Sea regions, where fishing rights and oil rights are still remain in despite.
While not enough to ever break the two allies’ solidarity, the exact demarcation and management of fishing rights and borders within the Yellow/West Sea has been an area of contention in the past, and more recently the abduction of Chinese fishermen by North Korean ships in Korea Bay has highlighted potential instability and agitation in the region. Even the Chinese government admitted that this region is rife with potential for incidents and trouble when it banned its own fishing trawlers from getting too close to North Korea’s waters. Tensions in Korea Bay are usually dealt with quietly and privately, but in the last few years the issues have been more and more public, and the perceived tensions seem to be slowly increasing.
Adding successful oil exploration to an already disputed maritime region is a recipe for trouble. Vietnam and China have clashed for years over the administration and demarcation of numerous islands and maritime regions within the South China Sea, and trouble has recently sprung up over a Chinese oil rig placed in heavily disputed waters. The South China Sea is an important region to the PRC for almost every reason a nation-state actor could care about. Control of the South China Sea means control or heavily influence over vital sea lanes, numerous nations aligned or allied with potentially competitive powers, fishing grounds, and oil and gas. The Yellow Sea, in a similar vein, is the gateway to Tianjin, Dalian, Huludao, Dandong, Sinuiju, and, through Tianjin, Beijing – the Yellow Sea is the gateway to northeast Asian trade in a similar, though not identical, way to the South China Sea being a gateway to Malacca and the Indian Ocean.
The DPRK’s relationship with China has rarely been as sour as the Vietnam-China relationship, and the problems between the two are almost never aired publicly. However, oil is a big-ticket item that can cause serious conflicts. The DPRK needs it to revitalize almost every sector of its economy and China is trying to lock down as many secure sources of petroleum it can to secure its own all-consuming energy future. China already is drilling heavily in the Bohai, and has been essentially steamrolling its way through maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
The PRC is currently attempting to gain as much control of its southern gateway as possible. The disputes and protests of Myanmar, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan have so far been steamrolled with the so-far-successful upgrading of the Sansha administrative district, military patrols around the entire sea, and oil exploration and drilling. Despite protests from literally every country in the region, and several from outside the region, China has handled the situation a way that still gives Beijing the upper hand in its quest for regional, political, and energy security, and it would probably not be a terribly far-fetched suggestion that it may work a Korea Bay situation towards a similar outcome, albeit with possibly a different attitude. As the PRC continues to lock down the valuable but hostile South China Sea, it would not be unreasonable to presume it may try to do the same in the increasingly valuable and unstable Korea Bay and Yellow Sea.
To give geographic context to the issue, below is a map produced by HBOil to illustrate it and the DPRK’s oil exploration superimposed in Google Earth. According to HBOil’s general map of the west Sea Basin, most claims and demarcations are closer to North Korea than the PRC.
Here is the map again with the background removed.
But then again, a quick look at the claims and vague assertions of control within the South China Sea show the complexity and obscurity of enforceable maritime claims.
This oil exploration region is easily within the PRC’s reach if they began to push with even a fraction of the force used in the South China Sea.
The reason this all matters is that it could be yet another frustrating and valuable point of contention pushing the PRC and DPRK apart. In a relationship already marred by serious military disharmony, nuclear ambition, and economic antagonism, an oil rush in a poorly demarcated border sea could be the perfect opportunity for the PRC to lord itself over North Korea and push it out from Korea Bay, bringing the naval harassment associated with the Vietnam and the Spratlys to Korea.
As the US’s ‘strategic patience’ slowly runs out, this could be an opportunity to align the PRC’s desire for regional hegemony and energy security with the US and allies’ goal of a united ring of similar minded states around the DPRK. The PRC is frequently cited as the biggest enabler of the DRPK’s behavior, and increasing tension and friction between the two could be exploited and co-opted by others as a means of further pressuring the DRPK.
In addition to geopolitical implications, the environmental concerns surrounding a DPRK operated oil rig are incredible. Unless HBOil or another third party is entirely operating a DPRK drilling platform, then a country known for its inability to keep to industrial standards and to keep complex industrial equipment in good repair could be sitting on a regional ecological time bomb. The last decade has seen numerous oil platform related disasters, with massive oil spills causing horrible ecological damage in the Gulf of Mexico and the Bohai, for example. Offshore exploration, while incredibly beneficial for the DPRK’s and Mongolia’s energy security, is risky and dangerous for regional fishing areas and marine life.
The DPRK’s fledgling oil industry could easily start ruffling feathers and piquing the interest of the bordering oil-hungry PRC and generate serious tensions and possibly conflict in the Yellow Sea. The Yellow Sea and Korea Bay are the gateways to northeast China and the northeast Asian trade routes from China, and any tensions or continued instability in the region will push China to seize control of the region and push back actors introducing instability. Adding desirable energy goods could cause the PRC to undermine DPRK legitimacy and control of the region, for better or worse.