By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 7, 2005
A senior U.S. envoy asked Chinese officials last week to cut off North Korea's supply of oil as a way of pressuring the government to return to disarmament talks. But the Chinese rebuffed the idea, saying it would damage their pipeline, according to U.S. officials briefed on the talks.
After Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill raised the idea of a "technical" interruption of fuel in a meeting in Beijing on April 26, one senior Chinese official, Yang Xiyu, complained that the Americans were focused on too narrow a range of tools for China to influence Pyongyang. Chinese officials suggested that cutting off food deliveries would have the greatest impact on Pyongyang, and indicated Beijing was considering expanding a ban on certain imports to North Korea. But they did not elaborate on their comments or indicate any action was forthcoming, U.S. officials said.
Hill's push for a Chinese fuel cutoff is part of an escalating struggle between North Korea and the United States that has raised tensions across North Asia. North Korea announced in February that it was a nuclear power and said it would not return to six-nation talks on its nuclear programs -- which now have not taken place for 11 months -- because of the Bush administration's "hostile policy." U.S. officials have responded with increasingly dark warnings about North Korean threats and behavior, including suggesting two weeks ago that North Korea may be laying the groundwork for its first nuclear test.
"They are escalating as we speak," said one senior U.S. official yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It is becoming much more tense."
Signifying the divide between Washington and Pyongyang, Chinese officials also told Hill about an unofficial North Korean proposal for ending the impasse that even Beijing deemed unrealistic. The North Korean idea called for a secret bilateral meeting between the United States and North Korea, during which the United States would privately apologize for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's comment that North Korea was an "outpost of tyranny." After that secret session, North Korea would consider returning to six-nation negotiations.
"It was not a serious effort to advance the process," said another U.S. official familiar with the North Korean approach.
China provides much of North Korea's energy and food, and has boosted trade with its neighbor by 20 percent in the past year. With relations between Washington and Pyongyang at a nadir -- North Korea labeled President Bush a "half-baked man" and a "philistine" last weekend -- U.S. officials have increasingly turned to China to help bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. But China's apparent reluctance to put additional pressure on Pyongyang, even though Chinese officials regularly complain about North Korean behavior, has deeply frustrated U.S. officials.
"China has done a very good job. But China alone is not enough," Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing told reporters yesterday while attending a meeting in Tokyo.
In March 2003, unnamed diplomats in Seoul were quoted in news reports as saying that China had shut down its pipeline for three days, supposedly to pressure North Korea to attend talks in Beijing with China and the United States. But senior U.S officials now have come to doubt that the reported shutdown was related to nuclear diplomacy, especially since China prodded North Korea to attend later talks through monetary incentives.
North Korea imports all the oil it consumes. Yang told Hill that a shutdown would seriously damage the pipeline running from its northeastern province of Liaoning to North Korea because the fuel has a very high paraffin content. Paraffin wax can be a problem in the transportation of crude oil, clogging pipelines and requiring their replacement.
Yang dismissed Hill's request as "not a new idea," adding that Rice suggested the same thing in 2003 when she was national security adviser.
During a visit to Beijing in March, Rice indicated she had raised the possibility of increasing pressure on Pyongyang by referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. Japanese officials indicated yesterday that they were prepared to accept that tactic as soon as June, when the talks will have been suspended for a year. But U.S. officials concede that the Security Council route holds little prospect for success as long as China -- which has veto power -- remains reluctant to take that step.
There have been news reports over the past two weeks that sketchy intelligence, including satellite imagery, indicated North Korea may be laying the groundwork for a nuclear test. U.S. officials dismissed as unreliable a published report yesterday that the intelligence now included evidence of a viewing stand for a test, but they yet again warned Pyongyang not to detonate a weapon.
"If North Korea did take such a step, that would be just another provocative act that would further isolate it from the international community," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters en route to Riga, Latvia.