The United States' latest drive to tighten sanctions against North Korea heaps pressure on China to consider using its last-resort punitive action, namely an oil embargo, to rein in the unruly ally, experts said Friday.
The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the legislation on Thursday which authorizes sanctions on those providing North Korea with crude oil and other related products. It also requires the U.S. government to determine whether the North is a state sponsor of terrorism.
The bill must pass through the Senate before it becomes law. The move effectively targets China which supplies almost all of the North's energy needs such as crude oil, diesel and jet fuel. The U.S. has been pushing for China to do more to curb Pyongyang's advancing nuclear and missile programs.
Suspension of crude oil exports is widely viewed as China's last-resort punitive option on Pyongyang. In 2003, China halted its crude oil supply to North Korea on the pretext of a facility breakdown as Pyongyang launched a ballistic missile. But the action lasted only three days.
But recently there have emerged signs of possible changes in China's attitude toward North Korea. Chinese media have raised the need to curtail or halt its oil supply if North Korea is engaged in strategic provocations such as the sixth nuclear test.
China said in mid-February that it will halt imports of North Korean coal, a main source of cash, in line with the United Nations Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang. The decision will be valid through the end of this year.
On Tuesday, North Korea made a rare direct criticism of China, warning that Beijing has crossed the red line of their bilateral ties by implementing tough sanctions.
Sun Xingjie, a North Korea expert at Jilin University, was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post that there would be a major impact if China halts crude oil supplies for at least six months.
But some analysts said that China would not risk exhausting its last-remaining leverage if North Korea carries out only low-intensity provocations.
Beijing has been reluctant to aggressively rein in Pyongyang for fear that pushing North Korea too hard could lead to instability in the North and undermine China's interests.
"The U.S. legislation could be quite burdensome for China, but it is also hard for Beijing to brush it aside," said Cho Bong-hyun, a senior analyst at IBK Economic Research Institute.
"A Chinese embargo on crude oil is unlikely as it could spark social disruption in North Korea and also damage China's oil pipelines. But I see there is an ample chance of Beijing curtailing oil exports." (Yonhap)