China suddenly gives North fuel for planes

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China suddenly gives North fuel for planes

After a yearlong halt in providing aviation fuel to North Korea, China resumed its supplies at the end of last year, said a high-ranking South Korean government official Friday.

The move was seen as a Chinese effort to restore relations with North Korea.

“Last year, Beijing provided Pyongyang a considerable amount of oil for free without listing it in North Korean and Chinese trade records,” the source told the JoongAng Ilbo.

“But it completely halted its usual annual supply of 80,000 to 100,000 tons of aviation fuel to North Korea.”

The official continued, “Then, near the end of the year, China provided 80,000 tons of air fuel all at once.”

The 80,000 tons of aviation fuel would have been worth $1.1 million based on the Mean of Platts Singapore (MOPS) pricing assessments.

The source added, “North Korea has the Sungri oil refinery in the Rajin-Khasan region.

“However, the factory is deteriorating, so it is not properly operating. Especially in the case of aviation fuel, it completely depends on China’s support.”

China’s sudden supply of aviation fuel also enabled the North Korean army to resume air drills it had been delaying.

A South Korean military official said, “While it is difficult to reveal the exact scope of North Korea’s drills, its winter military exercises that kicked off from November have been augmented compared to the previous year.”

He added that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un supervising air force units five times since last November “was linked with China resuming aviation fuel supplies.”

When Beijing halted its support of aviation fuel, Pyongyang decreased the number of air drills.

As soon as the supply was resumed, flights resumed and the North Korean leader has been regularly visiting air force units - including the North’s Korean People’s Army Air and Anti-Air Force Unit 458 - in early December.

Angered by Pyongyang’s third nuclear test in February 2012 and the unexpected execution of Jang Song-thaek in December 2013, the once powerful uncle and protector of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Beijing put some distance between itself and Pyongyang.

Analysts in the South say that after the process of taming Pyongyang, China might be entering a period of placating the North.

A former South Korean Unification Ministry senior official said, “When North Korea resisted participating in the six-party talks in 2003, China exercised pressure by threatening to decrease oil supplies, using the excuse of having to inspect the oil pipelines.”

Following a North Korean missile test in 2003, China temporary cut off oil shipments for several days, exercising economic leverage, though it blamed technical reasons.

“If you look at China’s oil supply to North Korea,” he added, “you can view the relationship between the two countries.”

It is likely that China is in the process of restoring relations with North Korea.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, after showing reservations toward Kim Jong-un on the third anniversary of the death of the North’s former leader Kim Jong-il last December, sent a message in January that China emphasizes the importance of the two countries’ “traditional friendship.”

To mark Kim Jong-un’s birthday on Jan. 8, Hong Lei, spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said, “In the new year, the Chinese side will push forward its traditional friendship with the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] in keeping with the principles of carrying on the tradition, looking to the future, developing good neighborly and friendly relations and enhancing cooperation.”

A South Korean government official said, “As Kim Jong-un is showing signs of visiting Russia in May and Russia likewise is showing closer relations with the North, China appears to be on the move as well.”

The official added, “If the North Korean leader’s first visit overseas is to Russia instead of Beijing, China may lose face.

And it seems to be acting on the conclusion that you can’t sway North Korea with just a whip.”

This has also led to speculation that Kim may visit China before Russia.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]


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