North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. Analysts say an oil embargo could paralyse Kim’s government. Photo: AFP

China ‘might agree’ to UN oil embargo of North Korea

Beijing could back such a move following a new nuclear test by Pyongyang, analysts say

Beijing would consider an oil embargo against Pyongyang in the case of further nuclear tests by its reclusive neighbour, according to diplomatic analysts.

A suspension of oil supplies from Beijing could deal a much harder blow to Pyongyang than any of the existing sanctions, possibly paralysing the government of Kim Jong-un.

But analysts said China was unlikely to impose further sanctions on North Korea without a mandate from the UN Security Council, given Beijing’s sweeping ban on coal imports from the North since February.

Though economic data, especially on the sensitive crude-oil trade, is sketchy, analysts believe Pyongyang has for years relied on oil imports almost entirely from China, its top trade partner and economic aid provider.

Rumours of a Chinese oil embargo have seen gas prices in Pyongyang rise by more than 80 per cent in recent days, but it would take an international ban on oil to North Korea of at least six months to have a major impact, said Sun Xingjie, a North Korea specialist from Jilin University.

“Instead of an oil embargo of just one or two months, which is unlikely to have a major impact on North Korea’s strategic oil reserves, we are talking about a halt in Chinese crude oil supplies for at least six months. That would be a real nightmare for Kim,” he said.

Ahead of a Security Council meeting on North Korea on Friday, which Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was to attend, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Fox News that he had been informed

“China would be taking sanctions actions on their own” if Pyongyang went ahead with another nuclear test.

In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, US President Donald Trump said North Korea was his biggest global challenge, Trump mulled new economic sanctions on Pyongyang and spoke highly of President Xi Jinping for Beijing’s willingness to cooperate with Washington to rein in Pyongyang.

In China, the remarks by Trump and Tillerson were seen as a way of increasing the pressure on the country, the only ally of North Korea.

“Crude oil is very likely to be included as part of new UN sanctions if North Korea continues with its provocative nuclear tests, and China will almost certainly endorse such an effort,” Sun said.

“But if North Korea does not conduct another nuclear test or the UN does not roll out a new resolution, I don’t see any reason why Beijing would take the lead to unleash fresh sanctions.”

Professor Lee Jung-nam, a China affairs analyst at Korea University in Seoul, said whether China was willing to take harsher measures against North Korea was not about Beijing’s capability.

“It totally depends on whether Beijing wants to do it or not, or to put it bluntly, whether Beijing is ready to dump Kim Jong-un or not,” she said.

Lee said that with signs of closer cooperation between the US and China on North Korea’s nuclear programme, Pyongyang appeared to have refrained from provocations recently.

“While an oil embargo would definitely be the most effective economic sanction on the North, it is unlikely to force Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear and missile programmes because Kim may still be able to turn to Russia for oil supplies,” she said.

On Friday, the Global Times, controlled by the party mouthpiece People’s Daily, warned that Beijing must be prepared for worsening ties with Pyongyang and “ready itself for unfriendly activities by North Korea”.

The ultra-nationalist newspaper also said that if North Korea continued with its dangerous nuclear activities, China would have little choice but to support harsher sanctions.