BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s imports of North Korean goods in April fell below $100 million to the lowest in nearly three years, data showed on Tuesday, after China stopped buying coal from the isolated country and as calls mount for further economic sanctions.
Neighboring China is North Korea’s biggest trade partner, and the data indicates that China’s halt of North Korean coal imports on Feb. 26 is having an impact and curbing Pyongyang’s ability to raise hard currency through exports.
The world’s second-largest economy bought goods worth $99.3 million in April from North Korea, the lowest monthly tally since at least June 2014, according to Chinese customs data. Previous data was not available.
That compares with $114.6 million in March and $167.7 million a year earlier.
A fifth of the April total was iron ore imports, which hit 285,000 tonnes, their highest since August 2014. That was up 10 percent from a month earlier and 2-1/2 times higher than a year earlier.
U.S. President Donald Trump has been urging China to put more pressure on North Korea to step back from its nuclear and missile programs, and lavished praise on President Xi Jinping last month for efforts to do so.
At a regular briefing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing’s actions were not aimed at proving anything to anyone else.
“This is our international obligation as a responsible member of the international community and permanent member of the U.N. Security Council,” she said.
Cho Bong-hyun, who heads research on North Korea’s economy at IBK Bank in Seoul, said China’s imports from North Korea were likely to continue to decline due to Pyongyang’s repeated missile tests and the suspension of coal shipments to China.
“This won’t be disastrous for North Korea, but it will obviously hurt North Korea because it tends to export goods to China worth around $3 billion per year,” he said.
The value of imports from North Korea has fallen month-on-month since December, the data showed.
China’s exports to North Korea eased to $288.2 million in April, down 12 percent from March. Exports for the first four months of the year were up 32 percent at $1 billion.
Diesel shipments to North Korea in April more than halved from March to 2,606 tonnes and gasoline sales dropped 6 percent to 13,496 tonnes. North Korea gets most of its oil needs from China.
Crude oil exports from China to North Korea have not been disclosed by customs for several years, but sources have put it at about 520,000 tonnes a year.
Cutting off oil to North Korea for an extended period would be a crippling measure that analysts have said they don’t expect China would take.
Pyongyang does not publish economic data.
North Korea fired a ballistic missile into waters off its east coast on Sunday, the second test in a week in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
In a statement posted on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged North Korea not to violate U.N. resolutions on its nuclear and missile programs.
Washington has weighed tougher economic sanctions on Pyongyang, including an oil embargo, a global ban on its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks that do business with Pyongyang.
China is North Korea’s chief ally but has become increasingly frustrated by Pyongyang’s provocative behavior, but opposes any retaliatory action that would destabilize or threaten the regime of Kim Jong Un.
Data released later on Tuesday showed China did not take any North Korean coal in April for a second straight month, after Beijing’s ban of such imports following repeated missile tests by Pyongyang.
China imported 1.53 million tonnes of coal worth $72.3 million from North Korea in April 2016.
Reporting by Josephine Mason; additional reporting by Ju-min Park in SEOUL and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Tony Munroe