China suspends coal imports from North Korea

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China suspends coal imports from North Korea

In an unprecedented move, China has frozen imports of North Korean coal as part of the latest international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang for its fifth nuclear test three months ago.

Beijing stated on the website of its commerce ministry that it suspended imports of coal from its communist ally Sunday, a sanction that would run until the end of this year. China’s 20-day complete halt of imports of its ally’s major source of currency is intended to align with quota requirements set by the United Nations Security Council resolution adopted Nov. 30.

As part of the recent resolution, North Korea’s coal exports cannot exceed $53.5 million or about 1 million metric tons, or whichever is lower, from the resolution adoption date to the end of the year. North Korea’s annual coal exports will be capped at whichever is lower between $400.9 million or 7.5 million metric tons starting Jan. 1.

At a moment when North Korean coal exports exceed the cap, all UN member states are barred from importing coal from the North under the resolution starting next year.

Countries will also be required to report their North Korean coal purchases to the United Nations.

It is the first time that China, the primary importer of the North’s coal, stopped purchasing from the Kim Jong-un regime in line with UN Security Council resolutions.

North Korea, despite facing sanctions in the past, conducted its fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9, prompting the UN Security Council to produce new sanctions. But the 82-day period it took for the 15 member states to produce a set of sanctions aimed at choking cash flow into the North regime from the day it conducted a nuclear test was the longest to date.

With the latest resolution, the international community is hoping to slash the North’s coal export revenue, a major source of hard cash for the regime, by more than 60 percent, or at least $700 million annually.

With Beijing’s jumping on board to respect the agreement reached with 14 other UN Security Council members by suspending all of its coal imports from the North, at least for the next 20 days, China appears to show a clear message to Pyongyang that it is against it accelerating the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Since China is a major trade partner with North Korea that accounts for more than 90 percent of Pyongyang’s trade, Beijing’s commitment to delivering on UN resolutions is a key factor determining whether concerted sanctions will succeed at deterring the North from further nuclear development.

A key factor to watch is whether China will continue to enforce measures to follow the resolution to bring a real force to change the North’s behavior in its race toward a nuclear state.

“When one looks at the UNSC Resolution 2321, there are many clauses that impose strict responsibilities for states to abide by the resolution as well as placing monitoring mechanisms,” a South Korean official told the JoongAng Ilbo Monday. “It will be hard for China to evade such responsibility [to follow the resolution].”

The official said the Chinese government was on the same page that “harsher punitive measures” were needed for the North’s fifth test.

China imported 19.63 million metric tons of North Korea’s coal in 2015, 38 percent of an annual cap of 7.5 million metric tons of coal placed by the latest UN resolution.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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