American Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council on Wednesday that President Donald Trump had urged his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to cut off North Korea’s oil supply, a move considered among the last and most devastating measures possible against the crippled North Korean economy.
China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and ideologically ally. Pyongyang’s ability to rely on China and, to a lesser extent, Russia for essential goods like oil help it continue to invest in its nuclear weapons program while most of its citizenry starves.
North Korea launched what it claimed to be a new model of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) towards Japan on Tuesday, which its state media alleged could reach all of the mainland United States and signified a “completion” of the nation’s nuclear program.
“President Trump called Chinese President Xi [Jinping] this morning and told him that we’ve come to the point where China must cut off the oil from North Korea. That would be a pivotal step in the world’s effort to stop this international pariah,” Haley told her peers at the Security Council, which convened an emergency meeting on Wednesday. “We know the main driver of [North Korea’s] nuclear production is oil.”
“Through sanctions, we have cut off 90 percent of North Korean trade and 30 percent of its oil, but the crude oil remains,” Haley added. She also warned Pyongyang that, “if war comes, make no mistake, the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.”
Chinese state media reported that Xi told Trump his nation was “ready to join the U.S. to push the nuclear issue toward a peaceful settlement.” Neither Chinese reports on the call nor the White House readout mentions an oil embargo.
Haley had previously moved for such a sanction in September, following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test. A draft U.N. resolution prepared by the American delegation would have banned member nations from selling oil to North Korea, among other limitations. The final sanctions resolution that passed did not include the oil ban.
At the time, Voice of America reported that China claims to export “nearly 2.2 million barrels a year in petroleum products” to North Korea, though American officials have found evidence the true number may be twice that.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded to Haley’s remarks in the agency’s regular press briefing Thursday, stating that China will observe any new U.N. sanctions but not providing a direct response to whether China should unilaterally cut off oil sales.
“We have been comprehensively, thoroughly, conscientiously and strictly implementing relevant resolutions and fulfilling our international obligations,” Geng said. “We will continue to approach the relevant issue in ways that are conducive to realizing the denuclearization of the Peninsula, maintaining peace and stability on the Peninsula, and resolving the relevant issue through dialogue and consultation.”
China has previously announced partial limitations to its oil trade with North Korea. In June, for example, Reuters reported that the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation would temporarily suspend fuel sales to North Korea. The corporation did not provide a timeframe for when it would resume normal operations. This occurred before the communist Kim dictatorship once again tested a nuclear weapon.
Following the passage of September’s round of U.N. sanctions, however, the South China Morning Post reported that the sanctions deliberated exempt oil transferred through the Dandong-Sinuiju pipeline, which, it noted, “supplies 90 percent of North Korea’s crude.” That round of sanctions did not cut all oil to North Korea, but did put an upper limit on the amount of refined oil that nations could sell to North Korea.