While US and North Korean officials have traded verbal missiles in the past few days, China has been noticably quiet. However, that just changed as a prominent Chinese expert told The Nikkei that China likely will halt crude oil exports to North Korea should Pyongyang conduct its sixth nuclear test, signaling a tougher attitude by Beijing toward its rogue neighbor.
North Korea relies almost entirely on China for oil. The Asian giant shipped about 500,000 tons of crude to the North each year until 2013, according to the Chinese customs agency. Bilateral ties cooled that year after Pyongyang carried out its third nuclear test, and exports officially have remained at zero since 2014. But China is believed to still provide crude to North Korea off the books. A complete freeze would impact the North Korean economy.
A nuclear test or the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles would violate United Nations Security Council resolutions, and China is certain to respond with additional sanctions, said Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Chinese Communist Party's Central Party School and noted authority on North Korea.
The option to cut off the North's crude supply will be put on the table, Zhang said, while stressing that the Chinese government will ultimately decide its course of action.
Diplomatic sources have also suggested a halt to crude exports and financial exchanges. The Global Times, an affiliate of Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, recently published editorials arguing that North Korea's nuclear experiments must be stopped, and that China should make clear that it will cut off crude exports in response to further tests.
However, even if China says it has stopped all crude exports to North Korea, such a claim cannot not be verified, given that past shipments have not been reflected in official data. Some also argue that it is technologically difficult to completely shut off the pipeline between China and the North. It remains unclear just how serious Beijing has become toward handling Pyongyang's threat.