People walk past a street monitor showing news of North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile test in Tokyo, Japan, July 4, 2017.

Toru Hanai | Reuters

People walk past a street monitor showing news of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile test in Tokyo, Japan, July 4, 2017.

Data released in April showed China’s trade with North Korea grew 37.4 percent year on year in the first quarter, in spite of a ban on coal imports China announced in February.

“This is a distorted picture,” China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, said in a speech to a Washington think tank on Monday.

Cui said bilateral trade declined in 2015 and 2016, and by 41 percent in April and 32 percent in May as a result of the coal import ban.

At the same time, Cui stressed that U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korea did not constitute an embargo. “Normal trade … is not banned by these sanctions,” he said.

The Chinese embassy released a copy of Cui’s speech, originally delivered in an off-the-record setting, on Tuesday.

Cui said China backed further U.N. action against North Korea for violations of U.N. resolutions such as nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

He did not though make clear whether China believed North Korea’s latest missile test last week, which the United States described as a first ICBM test, was of that type of missile.

Diplomats say the United States is aiming for a vote within weeks to strengthen U.N. sanctions on North Korea over the test, but Russia has objected to a Security Council condemnation of the launch as a U.S.-drafted statement labeled it an ICBM.

Cui said sanctions were necessary, but could not solve the North Korean problem alone. He repeated a call for Washington to back a Chinese “suspension for suspension” proposal under which North Korea would freeze weapons testing in return for suspension of U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

Washington says the exercises are needed to maintain defenses against North Korea and U.S. officials say Beijing could face U.S. economic and trade pressure unless it does more to rein in North Korea.

Washington is expected to press the issue when senior U.S. and Chinese officials meet on July 19 to discuss bilateral economic issues.

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