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China's coal imports from North Korea fall amid calls for tougher sanctions over nuclear tests

China’s coal imports from North Korea in September fell by more than a quarter from August, customs data showed, after a push from the United States last month to punish North Korea for its recent nuclear test with a tougher ban on its coal exports.

Data from the General Administration of Customs released on Monday showed China imported 1.8 million tonnes of anthracite coal from North Korea last month. That was 27 per cent below the 2.465 million tonnes imported in August, which was the highest since at least the start of 2016.

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Anthracite is a high-grade hard coal that Chinese buyers use mainly for steel and ceramic manufacture, as well as for blending with other coal types to burn to generate power.

China announced in April it would ban North Korean coal imports to comply with the UN sanctions on the country, although it made exemptions for deliveries intended for “livelihood purposes”. North Korea carried out its fifth and largest nuclear test in September.

The September imports were up two per cent from the same time a year ago. For the first nine months of 2016, North Korea provided about 13 per cent of China’s total coal imports, data showed.

China’s total coal imports surged 20 per cent from a year ago last month after government-enforced closures of mines continued to tighten domestic supplies, raising prices and forcing utilities to source more foreign feedstock.

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Indonesian imports in September to the world’s top coal producer and consumer climbed 65.6 per cent from a year earlier to 3.74 million tonnes, although purchases from top supplier Australia eased to 5.86 million tonnes, down 4.5 per cent from a year ago.

Imports from Mongolia in September rose 187 per cent year-on-year to 2.74 million tonnes.

North Korea’s anthracite typically trades through Dandong, in northeast China near the China-North Korean border, and also through ports in the eastern provinces of Shandong and Jiangsu, according to traders familiar with the trade.

Dandong authorities have imposed some curbs on North Korean coal since around April, according to Liu Dongna, a coal expert with Sublime China Information and another coal trader who previously dealt with North Korean coal.

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China is North Korea’s closest ally and largest trading partner. It has become increasingly critical of the North’s nuclear programme, but prizes stability on the Korean peninsula.

China’s North Korean coal imports in April fell 35 per cent from March to 1.53 million tonnes after the UN sanctions were adopted. But they rose through to August.