BEIJING (Reuters) - China's coal imports from North Korea eased last month after new U.N. Security Council sanctions curbing the isolated country's sales abroad came into effect, while Russia, Mongolia, Australia and Indonesia raised shipments, data showed on Friday.
January imports from North Korea eased 13 percent from a year earlier to 1.45 million tonnes, the data showed. They were down 28 percent from December.
January's volume accounted for almost 20 percent of the latest U.N. annual sales quota of 7.5 million tonnes or $400.9 million (£319.8 million), whichever is smaller, on North Korea's biggest export.
The imports last month came before Beijing's decision last Saturday to ban coal shipments entirely after Pyongyang tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile in its first direct challenge to the international community since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he had not seen the latest figures, but that the latest U.N. resolution was clear about limiting North Korea's coal exports and China would fully enforce Security Council resolutions.
"According to our statistics, China has already approached the upper limits of coal imports from North Korea," Geng told a daily news briefing. "So because of this, we have stopped imports of coal from North Korea with a responsible attitude."
Sources said the few traders that have been left handling North Korean coal had been scooping up the fuel in recent weeks amid earlier speculation Beijing would slap a ban on imports after Pyongyang's recent ballistic missile test.
North Korea was China's biggest supplier last year of high-grade anthracite coal, used mainly by the country's steel mills, with imports reaching 22.4 million tonnes, up 14.5 percent compared with 2015.
Analysts have said steel mills will likely be forced to buy more expensive domestic anthracite or seek alternatives further afield from Russia or Australia, driving up costs.
Coal shipments from Mongolia rose 154 percent to 3.12 million tonnes, the fourth highest on record, as traders took advantage of its significant price advantage over Australian coal.
Australian imports were up 70.8 percent from a year earlier at 7.27 million tonnes.
Australian Newcastle spot prices fell sharply from about $93 per tonne at the end of December to about $83 by the end of January.
Reporting by Josephine Mason and Meng Meng; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Richard Pullin and Tom Hogue