China suspended shipments of crude oil to North Korea in February, Reuters reported on Thursday quoting Chinese customs data.
China, North Korea's sole real ally, normally supplies 30,000-50,000 tons of crude oil a month to the North. Its crude oil shipments to North Korea totaled 523,041 tons in 2012.
Some believe the suspension of shipments is further evidence that Beijing is losing patience with Pyongyang's brinkmanship tactics. They suspect it was triggered by the North’s refusal to listen to Beijing and cancel its nuclear test on Feb. 12.
But a South Korean government official dismissed the speculation, saying it is quite usual for China not to ship crude oil to the North in February due to seasonal factors.
According to the Korea International Trade Association in Seoul, China several times shipped no crude oil to the North in February between 2000 and 2012. There were only February shipments in four years -- 2001, 2004, 2009, and 2010 -- over the past 13 years, and their volume was well below average.
The problem is that the Chinese government's official data do not reflect the whole picture. "China's free aid shipments of crude oil to the North aren't reflected in customs data," a Unification Ministry official here said. "So if no shipments are shown, it doesn't necessarily mean that there were none."
"It's possible that China actually sent crude oil shipments to the North in the form of unofficial aid," he added.
A diplomatic source in Beijing said, "There's no report yet that China has cut off crude oil shipments to the North. I don't think there's an urgent reason for China to take such an extreme measure."
But another source said, "It's possible that China temporarily delayed crude oil supplies" to rap the North over the knuckles. In fact, rumors circulated for a while last month in Dandong that China cut off crude supplies.