China announces halt to North Korean imports under UN sanctions

Beijing's move to halt purchases of iron, lead, coal and seafood is a heavy blow from the North's closest partner

FILE - In this June 6, 2015, file photo, heavy machines move imported iron ore at the dock in Rizhao in eastern China's Shandong province.  China announced Monday, Aug. 14, 2017,  it will cut off imports of North Korean coal, iron ore and other goods in three weeks under U.N. sanctions imposed over the North’s nuclear and missile programs.(Chinatopix via AP, File)

China moved to implement new UN sanctions on Pyongyang on Monday with its commerce ministry issuing a ban on imports of key goods listed under the Security Council resolution passed on August 6.

United Nations members are required to implement the sanctions within 30 days of the vote. Resolution 2371 is the most stringent set of sanctions against North Korea since it first began to be punished by the Security Council for developing a nuclear programme in 2006.

The Chinese commerce ministry said on its website that all imports of coal, iron, iron ore and seafood will be "completely prohibited" from Tuesday. Beijing had already announced a suspension of coal imports in February.

The new resolution bans North Korean exports of goods including iron, lead, coal and seafood, expands the blacklist of entities and individuals associated with the nuclear programme, and blocks new or additional joint ventures inside the country. Most significantly for Gulf states — Kuwait and Qatar in particular — it prevents an increase in the number of its nationals working abroad.

Resolution 2371 also removes the humanitarian exception included in previous rounds of sanctions that has been used as a justification for non-compliance. It was passed unanimously after North Korea capped a series of missile test launches over the past year with the successful first-ever launch of a intercontinental missile in July with the ability to reach the east coast of the United States.

Beijing is Pyongyang’s closest partner and has not always enforced Security Council sanctions to avoid destabilising its poor and unpredictable neighbour.

North Korea is a buffer zone between China and nearly 30,000 US troops based in South Korea, an American ally, and Pyongyang’s stability is a strategic interest. While Beijing does not support North Korea's drive for a nuclear deterrent, it hopes to avoid any war that could destabilise China through a flood of refugees or even by getting pulled into a potentially nuclear conflict.

Chinese officials have said they would implement the sanctions fully, and earlier this year had already begun to ban coal imports from North Korea and reduce China’s oil exports to the country. Beijing is the largest exporter of food and energy to North Korea.

Some analysts say the threat of secondary US sanctions on Chinese banks and companies prompted Beijing to more strictly enforce UN sanctions and apply greater pressure on Pyongyang. But China also sees US president Donald Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and Kim Jong-un’s brinkmanship as deeply dangerous, and is calibrating its responses to push both sides toward talks.

The US state department said the new sanctions would cut Pyongyang’s export revenues by a third, from US$3 billion (Dh11bn) to $2bn, and with it the ability to develop and build new nuclear weapons and missile technology. But this will only happen if UN sanctions are implemented by all of North Korea's economic partners.

This has proved difficult in the past, as the Security Council resolutions do not have tough enforcement mechanisms and rely in part on countries to report their compliance.

A North Korea sanctions committee, made up of the 15 council members and a panel of experts, is mandated to report every 90 days to the council on compliance and ways to make the measures more effective.

Though process has led to patchy enforcement of the sanctions over the past decade, the Trump administration may be more motivated than its predecessor to act against countries and entities that fail to comply.

China accounts for more 92 per cent of Pyongyang’s trade volume and has been the focus of US efforts, but North Korea also has a small but significant economic relationship with the GCC. Estimates claim there are at least 15,000 low and high-skilled North Korean workers in the Gulf who are cheaper than counterparts from other countries and whose heavily taxed remittances provide Pyongyang with badly needed foreign revenue.

This was underscored last week when Kuwaiti officials said it had no plans to cut the number of North Korean workers in the country. The labour ministry told Associated Press there were more than 6,000 North Korean workers in Kuwait — more than twice as many as previously thought.

Qatar is estimated to host 3,000 North Korean workers and the UAE 1,300. Qatari officials were reported to have said recently that they would comply with UN sanctions and not issue new visas to North Koreans or renew those that expire.

Because the exact numbers of North Korean workers abroad are not precisely known, enforcing the sanctions against their increase may be difficult.

Pyongyang has diplomatic ties with all the GCC members aside from Riyadh, with the UAE being the last to establish relations, in 2007, a year after the first UN nuclear sanctions against the country.

Beyond the labour relationship, Kuwait has maintained closer economic ties to Pyongyang than the other Gulf countries. North Korea’s ambassador to the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain is based in Kuwait.