April 21, 2017 2:00 am JST

Beijing may cut crude oil to Pyongyang, says Chinese expert

China turns the screw on North Korea to prevent another nuclear test

OKI NAGAI, Nikkei staff writer

A truck crosses a bridge spanning the China-North Korea border.

BEIJING -- China likely will halt crude oil exports to North Korea should Pyongyang conduct its sixth nuclear test, a prominent Chinese expert told The Nikkei, signaling a tougher attitude by Beijing toward its rogue neighbor.

A nuclear test or the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles would violate United Nations Security Council resolutions, and China is certain to respond with additional sanctions, said Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Chinese Communist Party's Central Party School and noted authority on North Korea.

The option to cut off the North's crude supply will be put on the table, Zhang said, while stressing that the Chinese government will ultimately decide its course of action.

North Korea relies almost entirely on China for oil. The Asian giant shipped about 500,000 tons of crude to the North each year until 2013, according to the Chinese customs agency. Bilateral ties cooled that year after Pyongyang carried out its third nuclear test, and exports officially have remained at zero since 2014. But China is believed to still provide crude to North Korea off the books. A complete freeze would impact the North Korean economy.

Diplomatic sources have also suggested a halt to crude exports and financial exchanges. The Global Times, an affiliate of Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, recently published editorials arguing that North Korea's nuclear experiments must be stopped, and that China should make clear that it will cut off crude exports in response to further tests.

China likely feels pressured by U.S. President Donald Trump's tough talk on North Korea, including his willingness to consider military options. He and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed at their first summit earlier this month that Pyongyang posed a serious threat. Trump also pushed China to use its influence over the North.

Calls for a crude freeze have grown since around April 12, when Trump and Xi spoke by phone. Some think the two leaders have reached some agreement to toughen up on Pyongyang. They seem to be trying to threaten North Korea into abandoning future nuclear tests.

But China also insists that any additional sanctions require U.N. Security Council approval -- a warning against unilateral actions by the U.S., such as the American missile strike in Syria.

"It's unlikely that Russia, which has objected to the Syria strikes, will cooperate with the U.S. on North Korea," one expert said. "Russia will probably hold the U.S. back if the debate goes to the Security Council."

Even if China says it has stopped all crude exports to North Korea, such a claim cannot not be verified, given that past shipments have not been reflected in official data. Some also argue that it is technologically difficult to completely shut off the pipeline between China and the North. It remains unclear just how serious Beijing has become toward handling Pyongyang's threat.

Get Insights on Asia In Your Inbox

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Get your first month for $0.99

Redeemable only through the Subscribe button below

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.