China's state media on Monday denied its ban on imports of coal from North Korea was linked to growing tensions with its isolated neighbor after the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was murdered in Malaysia.
Beijing's customs authority on Saturday suspended all imports of coal from North Korea with immediate effect until the end of the year, citing U.N. Resolution 2321.
"About 40 percent of North Korea's foreign currency is said to be earned from coal exports to China," the Global Times newspaper, the sister paper of ruling Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece The People's Daily, said in an opinion piece.
"Therefore, China's latest decision is considered very powerful," the paper said.
China's General Administration of Customs notice took effect on Sunday, and runs until the end of 2017, according to a statement on the ministry of commerce website.
But the Global Times said speculation in Western media that the move is a response to Kim's death was "ludicrous," suggesting instead that the move was linked to Beijing's disapproval of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
"The international community will never allow North Korea to possess nuclear weapons," the paper said. "Pyongyang should be conscious of this reality."
"Its nuclear weapon program ... has made the North the most unsafe country in the world," it said.
It said China's "friendship" towards North Korea remained unchanged. "Chinese sanctions only target at its nuclear weapon program, and we are firmly opposed to Seoul's political fantasy against Pyongyang," the paper said, in an apparent reference to South Korea's plans to deploy a U.S. missile defense system on the Korean peninsula.
Bilateral ties with China cooled when South Korea announced plans to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), as a way to defend against North Korea's ever-developing nuclear and missile technologies.
Reports say large Chinese companies have stopped booking chartered tourism flights to South Korea in response, while Seoul recently turned down visa applications for language teachers at Beijing's Confucius Institutes in the country.
Beijing has also blocked shipments of various South Korean products, including cosmetics, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap.
U.S.-based scholar and political commentator Wu Zuolai said the apparent assassination of Kim was likely behind the coal import ban, however.
"The Chinese government has been protecting Kim Jong Nam, but perhaps some of his connections [with those in power] were lost owing to the recent power struggle [in the Chinese Communist Party], resulting in Kim Jong Nam's assassination," Wu said.
"This is just a small indication of the Chinese government's displeasure, and nothing more," he said. "Really, it has no way to influence North Korea, and China ... is now waiting to see what happens next."
No desire for collapse
A political commentator who asked to remain anonymous told RFA that Beijing had always shied away from implementing U.N. sanctions against North Korea after negotiating an exemption on the grounds that sanctions would endanger the well-being of the North Korean people.
"Coal is a major export for North Korea, so if they restrict it, this will have an immediate impact on their economy," the commentator said. "But China has no desire to see the North Korean regime collapse."
"China still wields some of the power because it protects North Korea for ideological reasons."
The commentator said the sanctions shouldn't be taken as evidence of a harder line on Kim Jong Un coming out of Beijing.
"China's fuel pipeline [exporting to North Korea] is still operational, and China has used the people's welfare exemption to keep it that way," he said. "But nobody has any way of knowing whether that fuel is being used for civilian or military purposes."
"Fuel exports are actually a way for China to continue to prop up the North Korean military machine, but there has been no move on China's part [to shut that down]," he said.
U.N. Resolution 2321, passed last November, capped North Korea's coal exports at U.S.$400.9 million annually, or 7.5 million tonnes.
But China imported 18.6 million tonnes of coal from North Korea in the first 10 months of 2016, an increase of 13 percent over the same period in the previous year.
Meanwhile, the Global Times warned that North Korea's isolation could last for decades amid the current stalemate over its nuclear program.
"[This] could become the source of a variety of political risks," the paper said. "Pyongyang needs to think carefully about whether nuclearization is beneficial to it or not."
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Wong Si-lam for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Wu Jing for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.