Hong Kong (CNN)It’s a rare public spat between two Communist neighbors.
North Korea has lashed out at its only real ally, accusing China of “dancing to the tune of the US” over its decision not to import any more coal from the country.
Without naming China, KCNA, North Korea’s official state news agency, said Thursday a “neighboring country” had taken “inhumane steps” to block trade.
On Friday, the Global Times, a provocative state-sanctioned tabloid, shot back. It said the ban had “left Pyongyang reeling with pain and fury.”
“Beijing routinely finds itself on the frontlines in terms of worldwide attention. Just as it does in the same calm and steadfast fashion with which it handles the Trump administration, Beijing will always be confident when it comes to tackling tough issues with Pyongyang,” the Global Times said.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was more measured in its response, with a spokesman saying it was ready to work with North Korea “for healthy and sound development” of bilateral relations.
China said Saturday it would halt all coal imports from North Korea through the end of 2017, with the statement coming on the heels of Pyongyang’s most recent missile test.
Analysts said the move showed that Beijing was fed up with the Pyongyang regime.
Coal is North Korea’s main export and an important source of foreign currencies for its fragile economy. Most of North Korea’s exported coal is shipped to China — its main ally and economic benefactor.
“This country, styling itself a big power, is dancing to the tune of the US while defending its mean behavior with such excuses that it was meant not to have a negative impact on the living of the people in the DPRK but to check its nuclear program,” the KCNA report said.
China’s Ministry of Commerce said the decision was made to comply with a UN Security Council resolution that China helped draft and pass last November.
Resolution 2321 imposed some of the toughest sanctions yet against the North Korean regime, after it disregarded an earlier UN test ban, detonating what it said was a nuclear warhead in September 2016.
The resolution included an explicit target of reducing coal imports by 62%, said Kevin Gray, a reader in international studies at the University of Sussex in the UK.
Gray said the ban could also be read as a form of “payoff” for US President Donald Trump’s recent acceptance of the One China policy.
Trump has repeatedly called on China to take a tougher line on its unpredictable neighbor.
In an interview with Reuters news agency published Thursday, Trump said that China has “tremendous control” over North Korea and could “solve the problem.”
“I have had a very good phone call with President Xi and I have had very good talks with him and the call is a start,” Trump said in response to a question on China’s coal ban.
“But we have a very big problem and a very dangerous problem for the world with North Korea.”
Analysts, however, say Trump may overestimate how much sway China has over its unruly neighbor.
Relations between Pyongyang and Beijing have been frosty since Kim Jong Un succeeded his late father as dictator, promptly purging several key government figures — such as his uncle Jang Song Thaek — with strong ties to China.
The murder of the Kim’s older brother in Malaysia, who was living in China and advocated Chinese-style economic reforms, is likely to have further soured ties.
However, North Korea appeared unruffled by China’s latest move, saying the ban would have little effect on its nuclear weapons program.
“It is utterly childish to think that the DPRK would not manufacture nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic rockets if a few penny of money is cut off,” the KCNA report said.
By Katie Hunt, CNN
CNN’s Steven Jiang and Tim Schwarz in Beijing contributed to this report.