The U.S. is working to cut off Pyongyang’s mineral exports, but China, the North’s oldest ally, is pushing back.
In response to North Korea’s fifth and largest nuclear test Sept. 9, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan began looking for new ways to put pressure on North Korea. A new United Nations Security Council resolution is being drafted.
“We’re focusing our efforts on cutting off sources of revenue for the regime’s unlawful nuclear and ballistic weapons programs, including revenue generated through the coal trade,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Daniel Russel said late last month at a congressional hearing.
“Our three countries will continue to increase the costs on North Korea and target its revenue and reputation until it makes a strategic decision to return to serious talks on denuclearization and complies with international obligations,” he added.
North Korean mineral, particularly coal, exports to China comprise a significant portion of North Korea’s revenue. The “livelihood purposes” loophole in past sanctions has traditionally weakened their effect, so the U.S. and its allies would like to close that loophole to put additional pressure on North Korea.
China, however, is undercutting these efforts. “We cannot really affect the well-being and the humanitarian needs of the people, and also we need to urge various parties to reduce tensions,” Chinese U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi recently told Reuters reporters, signaling dissatisfaction with American-led plans to put stress on Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.
The sanctions put forward in March ban the U.N.’s 193 member states from importing coal, iron, and iron ore from North Korea, except in situations where sales are for “livelihood purposes” and do not contribute to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs.
American U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power said Sunday that this loophole in North Korean sanctions appears to have been exploited.
North Korean coal exports to China dropped 35 percent to 1.53 million tons in April, but China began importing more and more coal as time went on. China imported 2.47 million tons of coal from North Korea in August.
The sale of North Korean coal to China generated $1 billion in revenue in 2015, and there is the possibility that those funds were directed into the country’s nuclear activities.
“We believe that the relevant Security Council response should clearly target North Korea’s nuclear activities and be helpful in realizing goals of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, and in maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday.
China has openly condemned Pyongyang’s regular ballistic missile and nuclear tests; however, Beijing has also undermined American-led efforts to shut down North Korean nuclear weapons programs.
For instance, China took offense when the U.S. hit a Chinese firm, Hongxiang Industrial Development Company, Ltd., with sanctions for conducting illegal trade with North Korea.
China fears that putting too much pressure on North Korea will trigger a collapse, leading to a severe humanitarian crisis on China’s border. China also adamantly opposes American plans to install a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense shield in Seongju in South Korea.
Many experts and policymakers agree that without Chinese support, all efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program will fail. That China is still importing North Korean minerals and signaling opposition to the elimination of the “livelihood purposes” component of past sanctions indicates that the U.S. and its allies will face challenges in trying to impose more stringent sanctions on North Korea.
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