ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
China is cutting off coal imports from North Korea. Coal is a vital economic lifeline for the isolated North Koreans. The Chinese government says it is closing the border to North Korea's coal exports as part of U.N. sanctions against the North's nuclear and missile programs. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Beijing for a closer look. Hi, Anthony.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: How tightly is China turning the screws on North Korea here?
KUHN: Pretty tightly, I think, if you consider that last year North Korea exported about $1.9 billion worth of coal to China, and that's most of their exports to China. And this year, U.N. resolutions are only allowing them to export 400 million. That's about 60 percent less. But now China's going to ban it all. They're not going to take any, and it's going to be for the entire year. And this is one of the only places that North Korea can earn any foreign currency, so it looks like it's really going to bite them.
SHAPIRO: Is it clear that China is simply following the U.N.'s lead here? Or could Chinese motivations be more complicated than that?
KUHN: Well, China has only publicly linked this ban to the U.N. resolutions targeting North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. But what's a little bit unclear is that, in past, China has allowed some coal imports from the north as a form of humanitarian aid. As long as that money does not go to the nuclear missile programs, it'll do it just to sort of keep North Korea on life support. But now that they're not going to take that coal, it's not clear what they feel about the humanitarian angle. China says all the time it does not want a humanitarian crisis on its doorstep. It doesn't want a regime collapse next door.
The other thing is that a lot of people think that this ban may have something to do with the recent apparent assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged, elder half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But, of course, China would never admit that in public.
SHAPIRO: Here in the U.S., President Trump has called on China to apply more pressure on North Korea. Could China be responding to that?
KUHN: It certainly looks that way. I mean, just before President Trump called Chinese President Xi Jinping, China announced a list of exports that it was going to ban to North Korea - things that could be used for both civilian and military purposes. But the thing is the coal ban was not part of that. And that's why some people think this timing - after the assassination of Kim Jong Nam - is sending a signal that Beijing is not happy with killing this elder brother who lived in Beijing for some years.
SHAPIRO: Is there any chance that China's decision to cut off this really crucial economic lifeline that North Korea has will make an already tense part of the world even worse?
KUHN: It partly depends on how North Korea gets by. Maybe it can get, for example, some of what it needs through smuggling. Maybe, you know, this thing will only last for a year, and it can scrape by, but maybe not. There are also concerns that, for example, North Korea could be really stung. And in response, it could ramp up some of its nuclear and missile testing or stage some conventional attacks on South Korean forces.
Also, next month, the U.S. and South Korea are planning war games, and that's often a time of heightened tensions. And the U.S. is planning to install missile defense systems in North Korea. And that's a move which angers both Beijing and Pyongyang, so it does come at a very difficult time.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking with us from Beijing. Thanks, Anthony.
KUHN: You bet, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.