Chinese rule out sanctions on North Korea

Posted in Koreas | 11-May-05 | Author: Joseph Kahn| Source: International Herald Tribune

BEIJING China still hopes to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program through negotiations and has ruled out applying economic or political sanctions to pressure its neighbor, a Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday.

The comments suggest that China's strategy for dealing with North Korea remains basically unchanged despite claims from American intelligence officials that Pyongyang may be preparing to conduct a nuclear test, and despite appeals from the Bush administration urging Beijing to take a tougher line.

Liu Jianchao, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, called recent developments related to the North's weapons program "worrying." But he said that both the United States and North Korea had expressed a commitment to resume negotiations and that China had "not lost hope" in arranging a new round of talks.

Liu rejected suggestions that China should reduce oil or food shipments to North Korea, calling those part of its "normal trade" with its Communist neighbor that should be separated from the nuclear problem.

"The normal trade flow should not be linked up with the nuclear issue," Liu said. "We oppose trying to address the problem through strong-arm tactics."

Since the United States accused North Korea of violating a pact to end its nuclear weapons program in 2002, China has resisted using trade or economic aid to its impoverished neighbor as leverage to force Pyongyang to discontinue the effort.

But China's continued reluctance to adopt a tougher posture will frustrate the Bush administration, which has sounded the alarm about progress the North has made in expanding its arsenal of nuclear bombs, preparing nuclear warheads for ballistic missiles and selling nuclear fuel to Libya.

At a time when relations between the United States and North Korea are locked in a war of words - President George W. Bush recently called the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, a "tyrant" and Pyongyang called Bush a "philistine" - the United States has relied heavily on China to find a way to resolve the impasse.

In April, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill urged China to cut off fuel shipments to North Korea to signal displeasure at Pyongyang's refusal to return to the negotiating table, according to a report in The Washington Post.

The report said China declined to do so but suggested that it might be willing to reduce food aid.

North Korea's cash-strapped economy depends heavily on Chinese trade and aid. The United States and its allies stopped providing oil to North Korea in 2002.

But Chinese oil shipments have continued, and overall trade between China and North Korea increased 20 percent in the first quarter of 2005 compared with the same period a year ago.

Chinese officials acknowledge privately that they have grown increasingly frustrated with North Korea's refusal to resume negotiations.

But the officials say they see no good alternatives to engaging with the country, arguing that sanctions would only further alienate the regime while doing little to achieve the goal of rolling back its weapons effort.

Beijing has sent repeated diplomatic missions to Pyongyang to urge a return to six-party nuclear talks.

President Hu Jintao called the talks, which involve South Korea, Japan and Russia as well as the United States, North Korea and China, the "only correct path" for North Korea.

North Korea has issued contradictory statements about its willingness to resume negotiations. It has said it will not do so unless the United States drops its "hostile policy," but it also reassured the Chinese that it is committed to continuing talks, officials have said.

Beijing has also expressed concern about the possibility that North Korea might conduct a nuclear test, but it has not specified whether a test would prompt it to impose sanctions. "Many actions coming out of North Korea these days are worrisome," Liu said Tuesday.

"We object to any action that is contrary to the goal of the six-party talks. A nuclearized Korean Peninsula is not beneficial to any nation."

But Liu ruled out using pressure tactics, including referring the matter to the United Nations Security Council.

"We think the six-party talks, and not the United Nations Security Council, are the right channel for addressing this issue," he said.