US calls on China to cut coal imports propping up N. Korea

BEIJING, China – A senior U.S. official urged China on Saturday to work with the U.S. to close a loophole on North Korean coal imports that Washington 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 $1 billion in revenue for Pyongyang last year. The U.S. has been seeking new U.N. sanctions to stymie North Korea’s economy and force leader Kim Jong Un into abandoning his nuclear and missile programs.

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 U.S. 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 U.N. 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 on Saturday 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 program,” Blinken said, calling it a reversal of the premise of the humanitarian clause.

Although the U.S. and China share a commitment to denuclearizing North Korea, efforts to co-operate have been strained this year by South Korea’s decision to deploy an advanced U.S. 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 U.S. to peer deep into Chinese territory and undermine its security.

Blinken reiterated Saturday that the anti-missile system is not directed at China, but raised the possibility of further moves, saying the THAAD deployment is “the latest but not the last defensive step that we would take” to counter threats from North Korea.

He 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.”