BEIJING -- China imported 12.5% more North Korean coal last year at $1.18 billion worth despite United Nations sanctions, casting doubt on its overtures toward cooperation with the Trump administration.
Economic research specialist CEIC Data calculated the sum based on Chinese customs statistics. Import volume -- a statistic unaffected by fluctuations in coal prices -- climbed 14.6% to a record 22.49 million tons. Traders apparently abused a loophole in the U.N. sanctions allowing some coal sales not intended for military purposes.
China started curbing its North Korean coal imports in April following a Security Council resolution. But imports have been growing since August on a year-on-year basis, with November and December figures more than double year-earlier levels. North Korea's coal exports bring in badly needed foreign currency, funding the country's nuclear and missile development.
The U.N. tightened its sanctions in November, imposing quotas on North Korean coal exports. But some worried that trade would shift to under-the-table methods not captured in official statistics.
Rex Tillerson, tapped as the next U.S. secretary of state, has said that "if China is not going to comply with those U.N. sanctions," then it's appropriate for the U.S. to "consider actions to compel them to comply," indicating that the issue could spark conflict with the Trump administration.
China's Commerce Ministry on Wednesday released a new list of items banned for export to North Korea, mainly materials and equipment that could be repurposed for building weapons of mass destruction. These items included chemicals, metals, software, and cameras with certain optical sensors. It was a comprehensive update to the list China had previously revised in June. Many interpreted the move as showing a willingness to cooperate with the Trump administration.