China's Commerce Ministry announced Saturday it is suspending North Korean coal imports starting Sunday through the end of the year in accordance with the latest U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in December to punish Pyongyang for its fifth nuclear test in September.
"Imports of coal produced in North Korea - including shipments already declared to the customs but yet to be released - will be suspended for the remainder of this year", said the statement posted on the ministry's website.
The rejection came a day after Pyongyang's test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, its first direct challenge to the worldwide community since US President Donald Trump took office on January. 20. Coal sales accounted for more than 50 per cent of North Korea's exports to China previous year, and about a fifth of its total trade, according to Professor Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Yun pointed out that the North's intermediate ballistic missile launch on February 12 once again showed the "actual and imminent threat of North Korea's nuclear and missile program" and was an opportunity to confirm the necessity of deploying Thaad. China imported more than 22 million tons of coal from North Korea previous year and exports of the mineral are a mainstay of the North's fragile economy.
North Korea said this week it had successfully test-fired a new type of medium- to long-range ballistic missile.
It remains to be seen what impact the suspension of coal imports has on the North Korean economy more broadly and whether that pressure is sufficient to convince North Korea to refrain from further provocations and to return to talks on its weapons programs, he said.
"Coal represents one-third of North Korea's total exports". With the worldwide community enforcing sanctions on North Korea after a series of nuclear tests, China now accounts for more than 90 per cent of its total trade.
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It is unclear whether China's decision is a result of Tillerson's calls for China to rein in North Korea. Relying on China is not only unlikely to solve the problem, it could also give Beijing a card to play in other negotiations with the United States.
"All countries should fully and transparently implement all relevant UN Security Council Resolutions on the DPRK", a State Department spokesperson said, referring to North Korea.
The timing of the ban is also close to the mysterious killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at a Malaysian airport.
Beijing, a long-time, main ally and neighbour of Pyongyang, appeared to be moving towards improved ties with the North's foe, South Korea, after its political opposition gained popularity following President Park Geun-hye's impeachment, Tangen said.
The United Nations Security Council, which includes China, sharply castigated Pyongyang last Monday for the missile test a day earlier, describing it as a "grave violation" of UN resolutions and threatening "further significant measures". The entire GDP of North Korea was about $17bn and now $1bn has effectively disappeared.
US and South Korean military forces are preparing for a major annual joint exercise in March.
Despite the ban, a Reuters report said in January that China had boosted imports of coal from North Korea. North Korea has accelerated its development of nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles since 2009, when it walked away from six-party talks involving the US, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.