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Oil emerges as most powerful tool to tame NK

The possibility of cutting North Korea’s oil supply to raise pressure on the regime is gaining momentum as the world reels from its latest nuclear weapons test.

While an oil embargo is seen one of the most effective of all sanctions against the reclusive regime, it is not an easy one to be implemented, experts noted, since it would have to involve China and Russia.

“All international sanctions against North Korea effectively depends on China. It is difficult to predict but it is unlikely that China would completely stop its oil export to its communist ally,” a Korea Institute for National Unification researcher told The Korea Herald, declining to be named.

North Korea is known to import about 1 million tons of crude and petroleum products from China according to data from the US Energy Information Administration. It is presumed that some 300,000 tons of crude oil is also shipped from Russia. China has neither confirmed nor denied its oil trade with the North.

North Korean Prime Minister Park Bong-ju (3rd from R) talks with officials of an oil refinery in this photo released by the state-run Rodong Sinmun on March 21, 2016. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)
North Korean Prime Minister Park Bong-ju (3rd from R) talks with officials of an oil refinery in this photo released by the state-run Rodong Sinmun on March 21, 2016. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

The EIA estimates that the communist state’s oil consumption last year averaged at 15,000 barrels a day, which is extremely small compared with almost 2.6 million barrels a day in South Korea and 12.5 million in China.

China’s first-ever shut down of the oil pipeline towards the North was in 2003, when North Korea appeared skeptical of taking part in the six-party talks in the August. China reportedly cut the crude supply for three days, and it moved its rogue ally to the table.

The United States is moving to impose the “strongest possible measures” and is currently working to present a draft of the new sanctions resolution to the council to be negotiated in the coming days, with a view of voting on it next Monday.

“Only the strongest sanctions will enable us to resolve this problem through diplomacy,” UN envoy Nikki Haley said, adding that North Korea is “begging for war.”

Diplomats said the new sanctions could possibly target oil supplies bound for the reclusive regime.

However, China and Russia, the sole oil providers, are maintaining that the tension should be resolved through dialogue, while denouncing their rogue ally’s recent test.

A temporary or partial ban is possible, but the Chinese government would definitely refuse to cut off oil exports completely or permanently to North Korea, Chinese cabinet adviser Shi Yinhong was quoted as saying in a Bloomberg report Monday.

One of the reasons for their rejection of the move could be fears that an economic collapse in neighboring North Korea would lead to chaos and a more dangerous security crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea appears to be aware of the possibility of additional international sanctions. It already set a goal in April to increase its oil reserves to 1 million tons, Japan’s Tokyo Shimbun reported.

The amount accounts for about half to two-thirds of the North’s annual imports of the crude oil and petroleum products, it added.

Since 2006, when Pyongyang first tested its nuclear device, the UN council has imposed seven sets of sanctions but the recalcitrant regime has repeatedly found ways to circumvent the measures.

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)

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