As Exports Grow, China Defends Trade With Sanctions-Hit North Korea

China defended a 10.5% rise in its trade with North Korea in the year's first half as part of a normal economic relationship with its neighbor in areas not covered by United Nations sanctions.

The rise in trade was driven by a 29.1% increase in exports from a year earlier, while imports fell 13.2%, said Huang Songping, spokesman for the General Administration of Customs, at a briefing Thursday. He said China was abiding by U.N. sanctions "comprehensively, carefully, accurately and seriously" and that the first-half data doesn't reflect Beijing's current stance on its neighbor.

He said imports from North Korea have fallen for the past four months and all coal imports were made in the first two months of the year, before China suspended coal purchases from Pyongyang. He said coal imports were down 74.5% for the full first half from a year earlier.

Goods exported to North Korea were largely items such as textile products not covered by sanctions, Mr. Huang said.

China is by far North Korea's biggest trading partner, accounting for more than 80% of the hermit state's external trade for the past five years. After North Korea's successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4, U.S. President Donald Trump in a tweet cited a rise in China's trade with Pyongyang in the first quarter, questioning Beijing's willingness to ratchet up pressure on its neighbor.

The U.S. has since stepped up its rhetoric, moving toward unilaterally tightening sanctions, targeting Chinese companies and banks the U.S. says are funneling cash into Pyongyang's weapons program.

Beijing has resisted suggestions it isn't doing enough to pressure North Korea, countering that Washington must directly engage Pyongyang to dissuade its nuclear ambitions. China backed tougher U.N. sanctions last year on North Korea's coal exports, while ensuring an exemption for "humanitarian" needs. Chinese officials say the February suspension of imports of North Korean coal for the rest of this year was part of efforts to enforce those sanctions.

China's Foreign Ministry says Beijing has played an "indispensable" role in trying to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. On Thursday, a ministry spokesman said Chinese imports of iron ore in the first half were allowed under the U.N. sanctions as they are for "civilian use" and generate no income for North Korea's nuclear-weapons program.

The data on the customs agency's website didn't break out iron-ore imports from North Korea in the first half.

China's imports of the steelmaking material from all countries jumped 16% from a year earlier in June and rose 9.4% for the first half, customs data showed, as a lasting property boom has spurred demand from the construction sector.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, also reaffirmed Beijing's commitment to the U.N. sanctions. "China is implementing the [North Korea]-related resolutions in a full and strict manner," he said.

In the first quarter, total trade between China and North Korea grew 29.2% from a year earlier, according to Chinese customs data. Both the first-quarter and first-half increases were in dollar terms.

Liyan Qi and Chun Han Wong

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 13, 2017 08:34 ET (12:34 GMT)