North Korea raps old ally China after Beijing's ban on coal

A Chinese worker carries a box of briquettes at a coal briquettes factory in Qingdao city, in eastern China's Shandong province.
A Chinese worker carries a box of briquettes at a coal briquettes factory in Qingdao city, in eastern China's Shandong province.PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (REUTERS) - North Korea issued a rare reproach of China on Thursday (Feb 23), saying its main diplomatic backer was "dancing to the tune" of the United States for halting North Korean coal imports because of its nuclear and missile programmes.

The North's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) did not refer directly to China by name, but in an unmistakable censure it accused a "neighbouring country" of going along with North Korea's enemies to "bring down its social system".

"This country, styling itself a big power, is dancing to the tune of the US while defending its mean behaviour with such excuses that it was meant not to have a negative impact on the living of the people in the DPRK but to check its nuclear programme," KCNA said in a commentary.

China said on Saturday it would ban coal imports from North Korea, which is officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), until the end of the year.

The ban came about a week after North Korea tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile in its first direct challenge to the international community since US President Donald Trump took office in January.

Mr Trump's administration has said China should do more to put pressure on North Korea. "A neighbouring country, which often claims itself to be a 'friendly neighbour', is... threatening that 'the DPRK will suffer the biggest loss'," KCNA said in the commentary.

"It has unhesitatingly taken inhumane steps such as totally blocking foreign trade related to the improvement of people's living standard under the plea of the UN 'resolutions on sanctions' devoid of legal ground."

China is North Korea's sole major ally but it disapproves of the latter's nuclear programme and has backed UN sanctions against it. China calls for the Korean peninsula to be free of nuclear weapons.

North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, including two last year (2016), although its claims to be able to miniaturise a nuclear weapon to be mounted on a missile have never been verified independently.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year speech that the North was close to test-launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). State media has said such a launch could come at any time.

A fully developed ICBM could threaten the continental United States, which is about 9,000 km from North Korea.

North Korea was China's fourth biggest supplier of coal last year, with non-lignite imports reaching 22.48 million tonnes, up 14.5 per cent compared with 2015.