Korean Peninsula set to become more volatile after China stops buying coal from North
Ban by China comes ahead of joint military exercise between US and South Korea
The situation on the Korean Peninsula may become more unpredictable with North Korea’s economy expected to be hit hard by a Chinese ban on buying its coal, and as the United States and South Korea prepare for joint military drills.
These could push the reclusive state into further provocations, observers said.
The ban, announced on Saturday, signals that Beijing is joining other nations in the region in the effort to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear missile development.
The Ministry of Commerce said China would suspend all imports of coal from North Korea for the rest of the year, in accordance with existing United Nations sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programme.
A UN resolution passed in November limits North Korea’s coal exports for 2017 to 7.5 million tonnes, worth about US$400 million, but down 62 per cent from exports in 2015.
The ban was seen as a response to criticism by the US and South Korea that Beijing was “not doing enough” to modify North Korea’s behaviour.
Earlier this month, North Korea tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile, after two nuclear tests and 24 missile launches last year, in spite of objections from Beijing, the North’s main ally and major trading partner.
“China would also like to show Kim Jong-un how serious it is, and hopes to bring all parties back to the negotiating table,” said Wang Sheng, a professor of international relations at Jilin University.
Beijing wants to convince Washington and Seoul to turn down the heat and not further irritate North Korean leader Kim, Wang said.
Washington had earlier called on Beijing to cut coal imports, which earned Pyongyang US$1 billion in 2015.
In 2016, despite a UN sanction imposed in April that year, China bought even more North Korean coal, with imports reaching 22.5 million tonnes, up 14.5 per cent from the previous year.
Zhang Baohui, a security analyst at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said the North’s economy would suffer badly from the ban.
“Coal exports are the main source of foreign income for North Korea,” he said.
Zhang said Pyongyang could become more volatile and further distance itself from Beijing as it sees its neighbourgetting closer to the US.
US and South Korean military forces are preparing for a major annual joint exercise in March.
“That would give Kim a fresh excuse to launch another missile, which would in turn trigger the escalation of reactions from the South, including THAAD,” Wang said, referring to the planned deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system.
On Sunday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi voiced concerns about the deployment of the missile defence system to his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se. “China understands South Korea’s need to protect its own security, and at the same time South Korea should respect China’s reasonable position,” Wang was quoted as saying by state-run Xinhua.
China has repeatedly expressed opposition to the deployment of THAAD, saying it would jeopardise China’s national security. Seoul and Washington insist the system is needed to protect against North Korea’s missile threat.