China sus­pends N. Korean coal im­ports for year

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY SI­MON DENYER si­mon.denyer@wash­ Jin Xin con­trib­uted to this re­port.

bei­jing — China will sus­pend all im­ports of coal from North Korea un­til the end of the year, the Com­merce Min­istry an­nounced Satur­day, in a sur­prise move that would cut off a ma­jor fi­nan­cial life­line for Py­ongyang and sig­nif­i­cantly en­hance the ef­fec­tive­ness of U.N. sanc­tions.

Coal is North Korea’s largest ex­port item, and also China’s great­est point of lever­age over the regime.

The min­istry said the ban would come into force Sun­day and be ef­fec­tive un­til Dec. 31.

China said the move was de­signed to im­ple­ment Novem­ber’s United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion that tight­ened sanc­tions against the regime in the wake of its last nu­clear test.

But ex­perts said the move also re­flected Bei­jing’s deep frus­tra­tion with North Korea over its re­cent mis­sile test and the as­sas­si­na­tion of Kim Jong Un’s half brother in Malaysia.

Kim Jong Nam had been hosted and pro­tected by China for many years, and his mur­der, if proved to be con­ducted on Py­ongyang’s orders, would be seen as a di­rect af­front to Bei­jing, ex­perts said.

China has also come un­der sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­na­tional pres­sure to do more to rein in North Korea’s nu­clear weapons and bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­grams, while Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping is be­lieved to have be­come in­creas­ingly ir­ri­tated by Kim Jong Un’s be­hav­ior.

North Korea is China’s fourth­biggest sup­plier of coal. Al­though China an­nounced in April that it would ban North Korean coal im­ports to com­ply with U.N. sanc­tions, it made ex­cep­tions for de­liv­er­ies in­tended for the “peo­ple’s well-be­ing” and not con­nected to North Korea’s mis­sile pro­grams.

In prac­tice, that ex­cep­tion was the cover for coal to con­tinue to flow across the bor­der in huge quan­ti­ties, with im­ports of non-lig­nite coal up 14.5 per­cent last year to 22.5 mil­lion met­ric tons (24.8 mil­lion U.S. tons).

But in a sign that Bei­jing’s pa­tience was run­ning out, it re­jected a coal ship­ment from North Korea worth about $1 mil­lion Mon­day, the day af­ter the test of an in­ter­me­di­at­erange bal­lis­tic mis­sile, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency re­ported.

China has long been re­luc­tant to do any­thing that might threaten the sta­bil­ity of the North Korean regime — mainly be­cause it fears that the re­uni­fi­ca­tion of the Korean Penin­sula could bring South Korea, an Amer­i­can ally that hosts U.S. troops, right up to its bor­der. Given that a to­tal ban on coal im­ports could be desta­bi­liz­ing, it re­mains to be seen how firmly the pledge will be car­ried out.

But Py­ongyang’s un­will­ing­ness to con­sider China’s in­ter­ests has badly dam­aged — or even de­stroyed — trust be­tween the long­stand­ing al­lies.

“China still places a pre­mium on sta­bil­ity, but Xi Jin­ping is grow­ing more and more frus­trated with Kim Jong Un,” said Paul Haenle, di­rec­tor of the CarnegieTs­inghua Cen­ter in Bei­jing, adding that the mis­sile test and the as­sas­si­na­tion were seen as “se­ri­ous of­fenses.”

“Bei­jing took the as­sas­si­na­tion as a di­rect af­front to China. Xi is less will­ing to tol­er­ate these provo­ca­tions,” he said. “China is put­ting a squeeze on its eco­nomic life­line to send a mes­sage to Py­ongyang.”

Wang Weimin, a pro­fes­sor at the School of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions and Pub­lic Af­fairs at Fu­dan Univer­sity in Shang­hai, said sym­pa­thy for North Korea’s na­tional se­cu­rity con­cerns had dis­ap­peared in Bei­jing, and “blood ties” be­tween the coun­tries had been bro­ken as it be­came clear that the regime could not be tamed.

“If we choose an ally that can’t be tamed, we might be­come the big­gest loser,” he said. “That’s why we are more and more strict with North Korea. Now self-in­ter­est is cen­tral. We won’t pay at­ten­tion to North Korea’s in­ter­ests any­more.”

Pres­i­dent Trump has also called on China to put more pres­sure on North Korea to stop its nu­clear weapons pro­gram, and the sub­ject may have come up dur­ing a tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion he had with Xi ear­lier this month.

China has “to­tal con­trol over North Korea,” Trump said in an in­ter­view on “Fox & Friends” in early Jan­uary. “And China should solve that prob­lem. And if they don’t solve the prob­lem, we should make trade very dif­fi­cult for China.”

The U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil con­demned North Korea’s lat­est mis­sile test Mon­day and urged mem­bers to “re­dou­ble ef­forts” to en­force sanc­tions. That ap­peal came af­ter an emer­gency meet­ing in New York called by the United States, Ja­pan and South Korea.


A view of Py­ongyang, the North Korean cap­i­tal, in 2005. Ex­perts say sus­pend­ing coal pur­chases, North Korea’s largest ex­port item, re­flected Bei­jing’s deep frus­tra­tion with North Korea over its re­cent mis­sile test and the as­sas­si­na­tion of Kim Jong Un’s half brother.

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