BEIJING • China will halt imports of North Korean iron, iron ore and seafood from today as part of the latest United Nations sanctions that could cost Pyongyang US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) a year.
The announcement came yesterday after days of increasingly bellicose rhetoric between US President Donald Trump and the Kim Jong Un regime, raising international alarm about where the crisis is headed.
China had pledged to fully enforce the sanctions after it was accused by the US of not doing enough to rein in North Korea, which relies heavily on its neighbour for nearly all its trade.
The Commerce Ministry said on its website that all imports of coal, iron, iron ore and seafood will be "completely prohibited" from today. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which approved the tough sanctions on Aug 6.
The sanctions were in response to the North's two intercontinental ballistic missile tests last month, after which Mr Kim boasted he could now strike any part of the United States.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi vowed after the UN sanctions were approved that China "will for sure implement that new resolution 100 per cent, fully and strictly". China is suspected of failing to enforce past sanctions.
Mr Trump complained last month that trade between the two neighbours had risen by nearly 40 per cent in the first quarter. Beijing has defended its economic ties with Pyongyang as normal trade between neighbours, and insisted it did not violate UN sanctions.
The suspension of coal imports, announced in February, deprives the North of a massive income as it totalled US$1.2 billion last year.
Among the latest banned products, China imported US$74.4 million worth of iron ore in the first five months of this year, almost equalling the figure for all of last year. Fish and seafood imports totalled US$46.7 million in June, up from US$13.6 million in May.
Regional tensions have heightened in the past week, as Mr Trump warned North Korea that it would face "fire and fury" if it attacked the US, while the North threatened to test-fire its missiles around the US Pacific island of Guam.
The war of words has sparked global concerns, with world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, urging calm on both sides in a phone call with Mr Trump at the weekend.
South Korean President Moon Jae In, who has previously advocated dialogue with the North, joined the appeals for restraint yesterday.
China has pushed for a resumption of stalled six-party talks to peacefully resolve the crisis. But its proposal for the North to suspend its nuclear programme while the US halts military drills in the region has been ignored.
The latest round of sanctions are expected to cut deep.
The curbs have coincided with a deadly drought that is killing crops in a country where about 40 per cent of the population is under-nourished and two-thirds depend on food aid, according to estimates by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation and World Food Programme.
Mr Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit in Singapore, expects a "severe recession" this year as sanctions crimp the mining and manufacturing industries, which together make up 33 per cent of North Korea's output.
Still, the new measures are unlikely to deter Mr Kim, who has a web of illicit channels to skirt the sanctions.
They also leave out the vital commodity - oil.
"North Korea's dependency on Chinese fuel is China's choke hold on Pyongyang," said Mr Dennis Wilder, a senior official in the administration of Mr George W. Bush. "If this goes, the North Korean air force can't fly jets and their electricity system can't function."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG