A senior US official has urged Beijing to work with Washington to close a loophole on North Korean coal imports that the US believes has been critical to propping up the isolated country’s finances.
Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Beijing ahead of talks with Chinese officials that Chinese coal imports from North Korea contributed to US$1 billion in revenue for Pyongyang last year.
Blinken’s remarks were made as the trade ministers of South Korea, Japan and China expressed concerns at a meeting in Tokyo on Saturday over trade protectionism which they said has been increasing globally and promised to take joint action against it.
The ministers agreed to maintain their countries’ free trade stance unchanged to promote steady global growth, a statement from South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said after the meeting, which was the 11th of its kind.
The statement made by South Korea, Japan and China did not detail what joint response the three countries planned to make against trade protectionism.
The US has been seeking new UN sanctions to stymie North Korea’s economy and force leader Kim Jong -un into abandoning his nuclear and missile programmes.
North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and 24 missile tests this year, demonstrating its progress toward its stated goal of being able to strike the US with nuclear-tipped weapons.
China remains the North’s only ally and a vital source of hard currency the regime needs for weapons development.
An estimated 90 per cent of North Korea’s trade passes through China.
Beijing agreed in April to halt coal and mineral imports as part of new UN sanctions against the North, but carved out a humanitarian exemption, saying it would still buy coal if the sales are proven to support the livelihood of the North Korean people.
Blinken told reporters that China’s imports have in fact gone up. “Their approach has been that the trade in coal is allowed unless you can demonstrate that it goes to the weapons programme,” Blinken said, calling it a reversal of the premise of the humanitarian clause.
The US and China share a commitment to denuclearising North Korea, but efforts to cooperate have been strained this year by South Korea’s decision to deploy an advanced US missile defence system, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, to detect incoming strikes from the North.
The move deeply angered China, which says the radars have a secondary motive of allowing the US to peer deep into Chinese territory and undermine its security.
Blinken reiterated yesterday that the anti-missile system was not directed at China and was a defence against North Korea.
He also downplayed the friction with Beijing over THAAD as a factor in new sanctions talks.
“My own sense is that has not affected the discussions in New York,” he said.
“To the contrary, I think showing that we are dead serious about defending our security and that of our allies and partners, and we’ll take any step necessary to do that, will hopefully motivate China to work with us.”