China considering tough measures against N Korea

Beijing, October 21:

China is weighing tough measures to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, with government experts calling for the reduction of critical supplies of oil and food that have helped sustain its isolated, impoverished neighbour.

The options Beijing is considering mark a break from even the recent past in which China has preferred to use incentives rather than threats with North Korea. But the October 9 nuclear test further frayed already damaged ties and strengthened the hand of critics who believe Beijing should take a harder line against a North Korea they say has ignored Chinese interests.

Even before the nuclear tests, with its patience wearing thin, China reduced food aid to the chronically food-short North by two-thirds this year, according to the UN World Food Programme.

After voting last week for UN sanctions that ban trade in military and luxury goods, China stepped up inspections of trucks crossing into North Korea.

On Friday, all four major Chinese state-owned banks and British-owned HSBC Corp said they have stopped financial transfers to the North — a step beyond what the UN sanctions require and a likely blow to a weak economy that relies on China as a link to the world financial system.

“There’s no doubt that China is increasing pressure,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “If North Korea continues to behave in this way, go down this path, China will be forced to take more severe measures.” Chinese leaders aren’t ready to fully cut off North Korea; the two were allies in the Korean War and the North remains a useful buffer state in Northeast Asia. In enforcing UN sanctions, China has balked at inspecting cargo ships, saying it could lead to armed conflict. And Beijing insists it wants North Korea to resume negotiations on disarmament, but that it doesn’t want an end to Kim Jong Il’s regime.

Beijing’s growing exasperation with the North has made a once unthinkable harder line more likely, experts said.

“North Korea is China’s biggest foreign policy failure of the past 50 years,” said Zhang Liangui of the Central Party School, a training academy for China’s Communist leadership. “China ought to cut off oil and food.”

In a commentary in the overseas edition of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper, Li Wen of Beijing’s elite Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China is running out of choices.

In the face of another nuclear test or other North Korean provocations, “China might have to stop supplying oil and grain to North Korea,” Li said. “If North Korea doesn’t return to the six-party talks, what else could be done?”