China's Ministry of Commerce said that Beijing will halt imports of coal, iron, iron ore and seafood from North Korea starting on Tuesday, cutting an important economic lifeline for the Pyongyang regime, as it implemented a package of sanctions passed by the United Nations Security Council on August 6.
China accounts for roughly 90% of North Korean trade but moved earlier in February to suspend North Korea’s coal imports until the end of the year. Coal normally accounts for about half of North Korea’s exports, but despite the coal ban, overall trade between the two countries remained healthy according to WaPo.
Last month China announced that imports from North Korea fell to $880 million in the six months that ended in June, down 13% from a year earlier. Notably, China’s coal imports from North Korea dropped precipitously, with only 2.7 million tons being shipped in the first half of 2017, down 75 percent from 2016. But a 29 percent spike in Chinese exports to North Korea — North Korea bought $1.67 billion worth of Chinese products in the first six months of the year — helped push total trade between the two countries up 10 percent between January and June, compared with the same period last year.
While the latest move to halt imports of iron, iron ore, lead and lead ore, and seafood products will put significantly more pressure on Pyongyang, it is unlikely to be enough to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program, which it sees as essential to its own survival, experts say.
The announcement comes after days of increasingly bellicose rhetoric between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which however appears to have moderated somewhat in the past 48 hours when contrary to some expectations, there were no escalations - and no missile or nuclear tests by North Korea - over the weekend. Last weekend, the UN Security Council approved tough sanctions against Pyongyang with analysts estimating that the action could cost North Korea US$1 billion in foreign revenue a year. The sanctions were in response to North Korea’s two intercontinental ballistic missile tests last month, which Kim boasted could now strike any part of the United States.
Indicating China's reluctance to implement the sanctions, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a regional forum last week that his country would pay a price for implementing the sanctions, given China’s traditional economic ties with North Korea.
On Monday Beijing also warned the Trump administration not to split the international coalition over North Korea by provoking a trade war between China and the United States. The warning comes as President Trump is expected to sign an executive memorandum Monday afternoon instructing his top trade negotiator to launch an investigation into Chinese intellectual property violations, a move that could eventually result in severe trade penalties. In China, these proposed measures were seen as an attempt to put pressure on Beijing to act more strongly against North Korea, and at the same time an attempt to shift the blame for the world’s failure to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs onto China alone.