Amid sharply rising tensions over North Korea’s nuclear arms program,
China said last Thursday that its trade with the country had expanded,
even though it had complied with UN sanctions and stopped buying North Korean coal, a major source of hard currency for Pyongyang.
China released the first-quarter trade data just days after President Trump urged its leader, Xi Jinping, to clamp down on trade with North Korea.
A US Navy strike group led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson is steaming toward the Korean Peninsula in a show of force.
But the Trump administration has indicated that economic pressure —
particularly imposed by China, with which North Korea conducts almost 90 percent of its trade —
is its preferred form of deterrence.
The data released last Thursday showed China’s trade with North Korea grew 37.4% in the first quarter of this year from the period in 2016.
Chinese exports surged 54.5%, and imports increased 18.4%,
the General Administration of Customs said at a news conference in Beijing.
China buys iron ore, zinc and other minerals from North Korea,
as well as growing amounts of seafood and garments manufactured in the North’s well-equipped textile factories.
China reported that its imports of North Korean iron were up 270% in January and February compared with the period in 2016.
But imports of coal dropped 51.6% in the first three months of 2017 compared with the first quarter of last year,
said Huang Songping, a spokesman for the customs agency.
Coal has been the biggest hard-currency earner among North Korea’s fairly limited menu of exports.
China agreed to stiffer UN sanctions last November, after the US said Beijing’s coal purchases were helping to pay for the North’s nuclear weapons program.
The coal, used in China’s steel mills, earns the North about a billion dollars a year, according to economists.
China had not imported any coal from North Korea since Beijing imposed a cutoff on Feb 19, Huang said.
That ban has been interpreted as punishment for the February killing in Malaysia of Kim Jong-nam,
the estranged half brother of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, which Pyongyang has been accused of orchestrating.
There have been other indications that China was following through on its promise to stop buying the North’s coal.
Shipping data from this month showed a dozen cargo ships returning to North Korea fully laden,
after China ordered its trading companies to return coal, Reuters recently reported.
Trump referred to that as an encouraging sign in one of his interviews last Wednesday,
a detail that appeared to show that he was paying attention to China’s actions against North Korea.
After the UN sanctions were announced, some economists said it was still possible for Chinese businesses to import coal on an off-the-books basis, using transactions that would not be recorded by customs officials.
But since mid-February, Chinese coal traders have said that their business has virtually vanished.
“It’s over,” said a coal trader who operates from Dandong, a city on China’s northeastern border that functions as the main center of business with North Korea.
The trader spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals from the city authorities.
On Wednesday, Global Times, a prominent state-run Chinese newspaper, said that
if the North tested another nuclear bomb or a missile — which it did on Saturday, in a failed attempt — restrictions on oil might be the next step.
North Korea is almost entirely reliant on China for crude oil.
“If the North makes another provocative move this month, the Chinese society will be willing to see the UN Security Council adopt severe restrictive measures
that have never been seen before, such as restricting oil exports to the North,” the paper said in an editorial.
How much harder China would bear down on North Korea by its own volition remained an open question.
“It’s hard to ban normal trade that is not prohibited by UN resolutions,”
said Yang Xiyu, a former Chinese diplomat who led China’s delegation to the so-called six-party talks on the North’s nuclear arms development in the mid-2000s.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry cautioned that Washington should not expect China to squeeze its neighbor, and ally,
to the point that sanctions would provoke instability, and possibly the collapse of the North’s government.
Nor would China be enthusiastic about more sanctions being placed by others on North Korea, the ministry said.
Asked about the impact of secondary sanctions that could be applied by the United States on Chinese firms that do business with North Korea,
the ministry’s spokesman said Beijing was opposed to such actions.
“China has always opposed the frequent use of unilateral sanctions in international affairs,
and we especially oppose those sanctions that undermine China’s interests,” the spokesman, Lu Kang, said at a briefing.
“China always decides its own stance and policy based on the merit of the matter itself.”