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By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China's ambassador to the United States has said reports of trade growth between his country and North Korea, in spite of international efforts to press Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and missile programs, give "a distorted picture."
Last week U.S. President Donald Trump denounced China's trade with North Korea, saying it had grown almost 40 percent in the first quarter, and cast doubt on whether Beijing was helping to counter the threat from North Korea.
"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.
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 labelled 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 defences 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.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by James Dalgleish)