Beijing banned North Korean coal, and traders are scrambling

Wang Zhao | AFP | Getty Images

his picture taken on December 14, 2012 from China's northeastern city of Dandong, looking across the border, shows a North Korean military officer (R) and a North Korea man (L) standing behind a pile of coal along the banks of the Yalu River in the northeast of the North Korean border town of Siniuju.

"It would be a material net positive for seaborne coking coal prices… The need to source this coal from elsewhere would boost demand for imports from countries including Australia and Mongolia," the London-based analyst said.

Traders and steel mills in China were busy finding alternatives for coking coal, Reuters reported on Monday.

Mills will now have to buy domestic coal, which is more expensive, or import supplies from sources further afield like Australia.

While increased demand may help China's own coal production, it will also pressure Beijing to find other sources of thermal heating as the country strives to clean up air pollution, which has become a social and political hot potato.

"Chinese authorities appear to be strongly committed to their goal of closing outdated coal mines and boosting clean energy. In this regard, the ban on North Korean coal imports has the potential to further stimulate China's energy transition," said FocusEconomics senior economist Ricard Torné .

Despite the short-term upswing in prices, there remains skepticism over the enforcement of the ban as China can still import North Korean coal under a humanitarian exemption.

"In 2016, China had already banned imports from its nuclear-power-holding neighbor though it made expectations for shipments intended for the 'people's well-being' and not related to the missile programs, which, in practice, allowed North Korea to keep its supply of coal flowing," Torné added.

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