BEIJING — China will suspend all imports of coal from North Korea until the end of the year, the Commerce Ministry announced Saturday, in a surprise move that would cut off a major financial lifeline for Pyongyang and significantly enhance the effectiveness of U.N. sanctions.
Coal is North Korea’s largest export item, and also China’s greatest point of leverage over the regime.
The ministry said the ban would come into force Sunday and be effective until Dec. 31.
China said the move was designed to implement November’s United Nations Security Council resolution that tightened sanctions against the regime in the wake of its last nuclear test.
But experts said the move also reflected Beijing’s deep frustration with North Korea over its recent missile test and the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half brother in Malaysia.
Kim Jong Nam had been hosted and protected by China for many years, and his murder, if proved to be conducted on Pyongyang’s orders, would be seen as a direct affront to Beijing, experts said.
China has also come under significant international pressure to do more to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, while Chinese President Xi Jinping is believed to have become increasingly irritated by Kim Jong Un’s behavior.
North Korea is China’s fourth-biggest supplier of coal. Although China announced in April that it would ban North Korean coal imports to comply with U.N. sanctions, it made exceptions for deliveries intended for the “people’s well-being” and not connected to North Korea’s missile programs.
In practice, that exception was the cover for coal to continue to flow across the border in huge quantities, with imports of non-lignite coal up 14.5 percent last year to 22.5 million metric tons (24.8 million U.S. tons).
But in a sign that Beijing’s patience was running out, it rejected a coal shipment from North Korea worth about $1 million Monday, the day after the test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported.
China has long been reluctant to do anything that might threaten the stability of the North Korean regime — mainly because it fears that the reunification of the Korean Peninsula could bring South Korea, an American ally that hosts U.S. troops, right up to its border. Given that a total ban on coal imports could be destabilizing, it remains to be seen how firmly the pledge will be carried out.
But Pyongyang’s unwillingness to consider China’s interests has badly damaged — or even destroyed — trust between the long-standing allies.
“China still places a premium on stability, but Xi Jinping is growing more and more frustrated with Kim Jong Un,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, adding that the missile test and the assassination were seen as “serious offenses.”
“Beijing took the assassination as a direct affront to China. Xi is less willing to tolerate these provocations,” he said. “China is putting a squeeze on its economic lifeline to send a message to Pyongyang.”
Wang Weimin, a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai, said sympathy for North Korea’s national security concerns had disappeared in Beijing, and “blood ties” between the countries had been broken as it became clear that the regime could not be tamed.
“If we choose an ally that can’t be tamed, we might become the biggest loser,” he said. “That’s why we are more and more strict with North Korea. Now self-interest is central. We won’t pay attention to North Korea’s interests anymore.”
President Trump has also called on China to put more pressure on North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons program, and the subject may have come up during a telephone conversation he had with Xi earlier this month.
China has “total control over North Korea,” Trump said in an interview on “Fox & Friends” in early January. “And China should solve that problem. And if they don’t solve the problem, we should make trade very difficult for China.”
The U.N. Security Council condemned North Korea’s latest missile test Monday and urged members to “redouble efforts” to enforce sanctions. That appeal came after an emergency meeting in New York called by the United States, Japan and South Korea.
Jin Xin contributed to this report.