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China reduces coal imports from North Korea as sign of displeasure

11 April 2017

China ordered ships laden with North Korean coal, the isolated nation’s most important export, to return home full after promising in February to suspend imports of the fuel for the rest of the year. On April 10, Reuters reported a fleet of cargo ships from the country returning to the North Korean city of Nampo after Chinese customs officials told trading companies to return the coal shipments. 

Carl Vinsson battle group - Image: US Navy
Carl Vinsson battle group - Image: US Navy

China suspended all imports of coal from North Korea on February 26 to abide by a United Nations Security Council resolution meant to punish the country and its authoritarian leader, Kim Jong Un, for testing nuclear weapons and launching ballistic missiles. The resolution, passed in December, prohibits member states from importing more than $400 million of North Korean coal in 2017, an amount set so as to not have “adverse humanitarian consequences for the country’s civilian population.”

Coal is North Korea’s biggest export and China is, by far, the product’s biggest buyer. The fossil fuel accounts for up 40% of the country’s exports and remains a financial lifeline for the isolated dictatorship, The New York Times reported.

Energy analysts said it was unlikely China was able to import enough coal by the end of February to reach the $400 million threshold, and that the move could signal China’s annoyance with the North’s continued weapons development and regional destabilisation, such as the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in Malaysia earlier this year.

In the past China has been unwilling to destabilise its neighbour, which provides a vital buffer zone between China and South Korea, a long-time US ally and host to American military bases.

But the announcement in early April that the US would send a powerful strike group, including the aircraft carrier Carl Vinsson, to waters off Korea in response to recent provocations by the North, could have brought about a change in China’s approach to the issue.

In an interview broadcast by CBS on April 9, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said China agreed with the Trump administration that “action has to be taken” regarding North Korea.

Tillerson said that when President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping met In Florida earlier that week, they “had extensive discussions around the dangerous situation in North Korea”.

“President Xi clearly understands, and I think agrees, that the situation has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken,” he said.

Also, Reuters reports  that to make up for the shortfall from North Korea, China has ramped up imports from the United States in an unexpected boon for US President Donald Trump, who has declared he wants to revive his country's struggling coal sector.

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