Still too early to tell on Chinese imports of North Korean coal

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It is still far too early to say anything of certainty or substance on Chinese compliance on the UN resolution cap of $400 million on coal imports from North Korea. A few figures have come out over the past week that are of interest on the issue. Altogether, the statistics suggest that two parallel processes are at play. While China certainly seems to have imposed the coal ban at least in part to comply with the UN-mandated $400 million import cap, it also continues to shift its consumption to domestic coal in the face of a drive to draw down on coal consumption altogether.

As UPI reports, one angle is that China instituted the ban to pre-emptively ensure compliance with the cap, knowing that deliveries early in 2017 would come close:

The official, who spoke to local news service Newsis on the condition of anonymity, said a Chinese decision announced Feb. 18 to suspend all North Korean coal imports included an accounting of “excess” North Korean coal that was delivered to China in late 2016, according to the report.

“China is of the mind to carry over the excess of December [imports] to this year’s upper limit,” the official said.

Resolution 2321 also bans North Korea sales of copper, nickel, silver, zinc and even statues.

China agreed to play a key role in the agreement. All exports of North Korea coal would not exceed $400 million per annum or 7.5 million tons yearly.

In 2017, China has so far imported about $126 million of coal in January and $100 million in February.

While the total number of coal imported appears to be well below the annual quota, when the December data is included China reaches the upper limit of coal restrictions, the South Korean official said.

Full article:
Report: China suspended North Korea coal imports to not exceed quota
Elizabeth Shim
2017-03-23
United Press International

Bloomberg reports the same figures, but give an added context. It is not only coal imports to China from North Korea that have fallen. Those from Australia and Mongolia have dropped, too:

China’s imports of North Korea anthracite coal in February fell 18.7 percent from a year ago to the lowest since January 2015, after a ban on imports as a result of the reclusive nation’s missile program. Imports of anthracite coal, a hard coal with a high energy content used in steel mills, dropped to 1.23 million tonnes in February from 1.45 million tonnes in January, data from the General Administration of Customs released on Thursday.

Waning shipments from North Korea follows Beijing’s decision in late February to ban coal imports entirely after Pyongyang tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile in a direct challenge to international efforts to stabilise the Korean peninsula.

The ban has also sent steel mills who use anthracite as a feed stock to find alternatives in the domestic market. Chinese anthracite prices gained more than 50 yuan($7.26) per tonne to around 780 yuan($113.26) in February, data provided by China Sublime Information Group showed. Imports from China’s top supplier Australia <COA-AUCN-IMP> in February plunged 29 percent from January to 5.16 million tonnes, the lowest since May. Still, Australian imports were 16.8 percent higher than a year ago, the data showed. The decline adds to speculation that China is trying to control coal imports to aid the country’s efforts to reduce overcapacity at domestic mines.

The head of China’s quality supervision agency vowed to crack down on low-quality coal import. Traders in southern Chinese ports also reported cases of cargoes delayed due to customs checks. Coal shipments from Mongolia <COA-MNCN-IMP> tumbled 37 percent from January to 1.97 million tonnes, though it more than doubled from the same period last year.

Full article:
China’s North Korean coal imports drop to two-year low on ban
Reuters
2017-03-23

In other words, it is not only imports of North Korean coal that have dropped. Imports from other countries have fallen too. The “import ban” and fall in imports, rather than being linked by direct causation, may stem from a combination of factors that were already at play. Any conclusions that “China is putting the squeeze on North Korea” or the like are still premature.

On a different note regarding China-North Korea-trade, NK Economy Watch editor Curtis Melvin notes on Radio Free Asia that the Nampo port oil terminal has been upgraded. Perhaps a sign of long-term expectations on the North Korean side of long-run trade ties with China…

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