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China May Reduce Oil Shipments To North Korea, Step Up Pressure

By Joseph Kahn


China is prepared to step up pressure on North Korea in coming weeks by reducing oil shipments, among other measures, if the country refuses to return to negotiations or conducts more nuclear tests, Chinese government advisers and scholars who have discussed the matter with the leadership say.

If Beijing does take a tougher line on its neighbor and longtime ally, the action is likely to bolster its relationship with the United States. Washington has urged Chinese leaders to use all the tools at their disposal to put additional pressure on Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader.

Among the most potent of those tools is oil. China provides an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of North Korea’s oil imports, shipped by pipeline at undisclosed prices that Chinese officials say represent a steep discount from the world market price. Any reduction in that aid could severely hamper North Korea’s already faltering economy.

Several leading Chinese experts said senior officials had indicated in the past week that they planned to slap new penalties on North Korea going beyond the ban on sales of military equipment imposed by the United Nations. But they would be likely to hold off if Kim agreed to return to multilateral talks soon.

Discussions about how to respond to the nuclear test, which was described by one expert as a “political earthquake” for Chinese leaders, come amid a flurry of diplomacy aimed at ironing out enforcement of U.N. sanctions and luring Kim back to negotiations.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to arrive in Beijing on Friday to meet with Chinese officials. On Thursday in Pyongyang, Kim met a delegation sent by President Hu Jintao of China, the first diplomatic contact with the North Korean leader since the nuclear test on Oct. 9.

There was no immediate word on what Kim told the Chinese, but Beijing experts said he would most likely have declined to meet with the delegation, headed by a Cabinet-level official, State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, unless he hoped to head off additional penalties by promising to resume negotiations.

“China is going to have to make some crucial choices in the coming days,” said one senior international relations specialist who has participated in top-level discussions of the matter but asked to remain anonymous. “I think Chinese leaders are prepared to take a hard line, but Kim may be smart enough to try to divide China and the U.S.”

China and United States already have some differences over how to enforce the U.N. sanctions that they and the rest of the Security Council voted for last Saturday. Beijing says it will not interdict North Korean cargo ships at sea, as the United States and Japan have recommended, and has warned against seeking to use the sanctions to provoke a confrontation.

“All sides need to consider how to implement Resolution 1718 in a balanced way and not devise ways to willfully expand the sanctions,” Liu Jianchao, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Thursday, referring to the Security Council resolution banning the sale or transfer of missile- or nuclear-weapons-related goods to North Korea. “Sanctions are the signal, not the goal.”