US faces questions over N. Korea

By Matthew Pennington, AP

WASHINGTON — China’s surprising suspension of North Korean coal imports puts pressure not only on Pyongyang, but also on President Donald Trump. The question for him: Should the U.S. respond with new North Korea negotiations?

Years of failed efforts to stem North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have followed a usual pattern. The United States seeks tougher action from China, the North’s traditional ally. Beijing urges U.S. diplomatic engagement.

But China’s move this weekend appears to change the dynamic, addressing the long-standing American demand, one Trump has vociferously repeated. If enforced, the loss of coal revenue could tighten the screws on leader Kim Jong Un after his government’s acceleration of nuclear and missile tests this last year.

China rarely makes concessions for free, and will want Trump to respond in kind.

“If China is squeezing North Korea, it is for one purpose and one purpose only: to offer a cooperative gesture to the incoming Trump administration in return for an initiative on negotiations,” said Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the University of California, San Diego.

Beijing indicated such a strategy was in play.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the country wants parallel negotiations on nuclear matters and a formal peace treaty to replace the armistice ending the 1950-53 Korean War — a longstanding North Korean request. Washington has said the North’s nuclear weapons program must be settled first.

Meanwhile, the newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, Global Times, published a pair of editorials Wednesday calling for aid-for-disarmament talks to restart. They’ve been on ice since 2009.

Any breakthrough would almost surely require U.S.-Chinese cooperation. Kim has shown little interest in relinquishing his nation’s nuclear deterrent as he closes in on a weapon capable of targeting mainland America, and Sino-American disputes over the best approach to dealing with the confounding North Korean leader have hamstrung international diplomatic efforts.

“We continue to urge China to exert its unique leverage as North Korea’s largest trading partner to convince Pyongyang to return to serious talks on denuclearization,” State Department spokeswoman Anna Richey-Allen said.

Trump has vowed to “deal with” North Korea, without saying how. His administration is conducting a broad-ranging policy review, including how to make sanctions bite. Negotiations haven’t been ruled out, said a U.S. official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss internal deliberations and demanded anonymity.

China’s decision on coal could change the U.S. calculus. A second administration official described it as a potentially hopeful sign, though the U.S. was still gauging the significance.

North Korea’s coal exports to China totaled US$1.2 billion last year, according to Chinese customs, representing more than a third of the North’s total export income.

Geng, the Chinese spokesman, explained China’s decision by saying the coal imports this year already “approximated” a US$400 million annual cap set by the U.N. Security Council.