China imported just over 1.44 million tonnes of North Korean coal in the month of January, according to the 1718 Committee tasked with monitoring the trade, on Monday.
The import figures are the lowest since coal was subject to UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions in March 2016 and the lowest since November, 2015 according to figures collected by the Korean International Trade Association (KITA).
The numbers, published on the monitoring website of the 1718 Committee, were made public three days after China’s Ministry of Commerce announced it would suspend all imports of North Korean coal for the duration of 2017.
On March 2, 2016, the UN Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 2270, which also subjected coal imports to sanctions, however with the inclusion of a “livelihood exemption” effectively allowing the trade to continue.
Subsequently on November 30 the UNSC passed its latest resolution – UNSCR 2321 – which added further restrictions on North Korean coal and applied a yearly cap on imports amounting to USD$400,870,018 or 7.5 million metric tonnes, whichever reaches the limit first.
The 1718 Committee has not yet publish dollar amount figures for the imports in January.
Given China has imported 1,441,985.6 tonnes in January this year – a total of 19.2 percent of the allotted cap – the country could potentially import a further 6,058,014.4 tonnes over the next 11 months.
However, according to Geng Shuang – a Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson – the country’s decision to suspend the trade was based on the assertion that it was already approaching the 1718 Committee’s limit.
“Resolution 2321 puts clear restrictions on the amount and value of the DPRK’s coal exports for December, 2016 and for the year 2017,” Shuang said during a regular press briefing on Tuesday.
“According to statistics by competent departments in China, China’s imports of coal from the DPRK have approximated the value limit put in place by the resolution,” he added.
“Therefore, a notice was issued to suspend coal imports from the DPRK for the remainder of this year.”
The comments come prior to the availability of figures for February, which won’t be published until next month.
“The Chinese foreign ministry comment implies that Chinese traders have already approached the $400 million limit. This in turn indicates a recent increase in the price of anthracite, possibly combined with another month of aggressive Chinese buying,” Leo Byrne, Data and Analytics Director at NK News, said.
“But if coal prices remained stable, it means that China once again upped the amount of North Korean coal it was purchasing.”
In contrast, when China last reported imports of just over 1.5 million tonnes in May last year, the trade cost just over $74,000,000 – according to KITA figures.
Shuang added that the move shows that China is “filling relevant stipulations in Resolution 2321, honoring its international obligations, and acting in accordance with Chinese laws and regulations.”
As referenced in the press conference, Resolution 2321 also capped coal imports for the month of December 2016 to USD$53,495,894 or 1,000,866 tonnes, whichever was lowest.
However figures published on the 1718 Committee website show that this cap was breached with 2,001,634.4 tonnes being imported by China at a total cost of close to $184 million.
Despite the apparent sanctions violation, at the time and during Shuang’s press conference, Beijing said it was in line with the resolution.
Update: KITA May figures amended due to input error. Changed from 74,000 to 74,000,000
Featured Image: Don O’Brien Flickr, cropped
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