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Chinese Govt. Pushes N. Korea, U.S. To Settle Differences over Weapons

By John Pomfret

The Chinese government has begun playing a more active role in pushing the United States and North Korea to settle their differences over the North Korean nuclear development program, according to Chinese government and Western diplomatic sources.

In a series of moves aimed at influencing both sides, the Chinese government has warned North Korea to stop provoking the United States, backing up the warning by closing an oil pipeline to North Korea for three days in late February, the sources said. At the same time, China has blocked U.S. attempts to use the U.N. Security Council to censure North Korea for withdrawing from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and has announced that China opposes sanctions against North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

“We have realized that we cannot let this situation alone,” said a Chinese government official involved in foreign policy. “So we’ve decided to attempt to influence it, specifically by getting the two sides together.” To that end, he said, China also has transmitted more than 50 messages between Pyongyang and Washington. It also has held numerous meetings with diplomats from both sides. Government sources said a Chinese offer to host talks between the two sides still stands.

The initiatives are a result of a realization among senior Communist Party officials that unless Beijing begins participating in the search for a solution to the Korean crisis, it risks losing influence in an area vital to its security, Chinese officials and scholars said.

China had been slow to react to the North Korean-U.S. dispute during the country’s political transition last year. It wasn’t until the 16th Congress of the Communist Party, which took place in November, that President Hu Jintao, Vice President Zeng Qinghong, and Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing were assured of their positions.

Hu Jintao underscored a more active Chinese role in the North Korean-U.S. dispute on March 16 in his first phone call to President Bush, shortly after his formal election by the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress. Officials here said Hu urged dialogue with North Korea “as soon as possible.”

There is some concern that the North Korean government may escalate tensions while the United States is preoccupied with Iraq by resuming test-launchings of long-range missiles, analysts here said. The North Korean government claims the right to develop missiles, and has fired two short-range missiles off its east coast in recent weeks. The Bush administration, for its part, could begin to implement sanctions against North Korea, something Beijing believes could also lead to a showdown.