U.S. Hopes China's Criticism of North Korean Arms Tests Leads to U.N. Sanctions

By Ariana Eunjung Cha and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 28, 2009

BEIJING, May 27 -- China's leaders have shown their anger over North Korea's nuclear and missile tests this week through unusually critical statements and harsh coverage in China's state media. Now, U.S. officials hope the sharp rhetoric will translate into support in the U.N. Security Council for new sanctions on North Korea.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has admonished North Korea, saying it is "resolutely opposed" to the tests. Official news reports have proclaimed that China is "shocked" by its neighbor's defiance and that it "demands" an end to "any activity that might worsen the situation."

Since North Korea conducted a second underground nuclear test on Monday and fired five short-range missiles into the waters off its east coast on Monday and Tuesday, academics at Chinese think tanks and other research centers affiliated with the Chinese government have begun to discuss publicly what had previously been unthinkable: cutting off food or fuel aid to North Korea and supporting other harsh sanctions at the United Nations.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has "gone too far," said Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Institute of Strategy at the Central Party School in Beijing.

"The nuclear test conducted by North Korea offended the core interests of China," Zhang said in an interview. "Since Kim Jong Il doesn't attach importance to China, it's hard to say if China will continue to keep a friendly relationship with North Korea in the future."

The United States has long sought help from China, North Korea's largest trading partner, in pressuring North Korea's reclusive leaders to give up their nuclear ambitions. But China has tried to win North Korea's cooperation through favors, such as construction of a glass factory, and has blocked sanctions pushed by Washington. The United States failed to win tougher international penalties after North Korea's first nuclear test, in 2006, in part because of Chinese resistance.

U.S. officials say they sense a different tone in China's response this time. But China has not yet made clear what position it will take in the U.N. Security Council, where negotiations are underway on a possible resolution against North Korea. "The Chinese are deeply exasperated, but we have to see what they are prepared to do," an Obama administration official said.

"We will see if it results in a substantive difference in New York," another U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic considerations.

Details of the proposed sanctions have not been made public. But some Chinese analysts said the U.N. resolution could take aim at North Korea's military.

The events of the past few days are probably "the most serious crisis since China and North Korea set up diplomatic relations," Zhang said. "Without military sanctions, North Korea is afraid of nothing. So, this time, military sanctions should be regarded as one option."

Wang Fan, an international security expert at China Foreign Affairs University, told the official China Daily that at this point, China "cannot oppose" possible U.N. sanctions against North Korea. And the Global Times, which has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party, said this week that it had surveyed 20 international relations experts in China and that half supported tough sanctions.

Even before Monday's nuclear test, there were signs that Beijing was losing patience with Pyongyang. In recent months, China increased the number of troops along its border with North Korea, made it more difficult for North Koreans to get Chinese visas and cracked down on illicit activities by North Koreans in China.

Some experts contend, however, that China's tough talk is probably a scare tactic and that it is unlikely China will support tough U.N. sanctions.

Liu Jiangyong, a professor of Northeast Asia studies at Tsinghua University, predicts no real change in China's policy. If China joins other nations in coming down harshly on North Korea, he said, "the role of China will be changed from a contact man to the enemy of North Korea." It is in everybody's interest for China to keep a steady relationship with North Korea, he added, because otherwise no country will have regular contact with Pyongyang.

Kessler reported from Washington. Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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