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China won't shut off oil to put pressure on North Korea

BEIJING—China declared flatly Tuesday that it won't reduce fuel supplies to North Korea to discourage that country from testing a nuclear weapon.

"We are not in favor of exerting pressure or imposing sanctions. We believe that such measures will not necessarily have an effect," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said.

North Korea receives most of its energy through a pipeline from China. Trade between the nations also is rising quickly, providing economic support to the isolated regime of Kim Jong Il.

Trade relations between China and North Korea—or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as it's known—shouldn't be linked to the nuclear issue, Liu said, and won't be affected by the "worrying developments" on the Korean Peninsula.

"The normal trade links between China and the DPRK will continue," Liu said.

A senior U.S. diplomat, Christopher R. Hill, visited Beijing late in April and reportedly asked China to cut off oil deliveries to North Korea as a way to prod the regime back to six-nation disarmament talks.

In the past week, U.S. officials in Washington have cited satellite images indicating that North Korea may be preparing a nuclear test in Kilju, in the northeast of the country. The images, while not conclusive, show workers closing a tunnel with rock and concrete, consistent with plugging a site for an underground nuclear test, and possibly even preparing a viewing stand.

U.S. intelligence officials, however, say they don't know whether the North Koreans are planning a test or staging a show in an attempt to force the United States to make concessions.

North Korea formally declared itself a nuclear power on Feb. 10, saying it had "manufactured nuclear weapons" to defend itself from attack by the United States.

Some U.S. officials think that a North Korean nuclear test probably would prompt Japan, South Korea and Russia—all parties to the six-nation talks along with the United States, China and North Korea—to urge the Bush administration to show more flexibility.

A Chinese scholar on North Korea, Jin Linbo, said China's refusal to cut oil deliveries had raised skepticism abroad about its determination to rein in Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, but that the stance was consistent with China's foreign policy.

"The Chinese government is reluctant to put any kind of pressure on another country, including North Korea. It's China's diplomatic philosophy," said Jin, the director of the department of Asia-Pacific studies at the China Institute of International Studies.

China is believed to have cut off oil to North Korea in March 2003 for three days, citing "technical reasons." The suspension was seen widely as a way to punish North Korea for resisting regional talks on disarmament.

Liu, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said China, as the host, was working to reignite the six-nation talks on the nuclear crisis, which have been stalled since the third round in Beijing 11 months ago. Liu declined to say what kind of communications China and North Korea have had amid the reports that Pyongyang may be preparing a nuclear test.

Some neighboring countries already may be accepting North Korea's status as a nuclear power, said Stephen Noerper, a U.S. expert on northeast Asia security issues.

He said he expected restrained responses from several key countries, including China, if North Korea proceeded with a test.

"China would basically be saying, `Well, we have a nuclear north. We can live with that as long as we have stability'" on the Korean Peninsula, Noerper said.

Jin said Kim might be evaluating the timing for when to show his nuclear card.

"His main aim, if he decided to test nuclear weapons, is to escalate the tension between North Korea and the United States, and between the United States and neighboring countries" to North Korea, Jin said, adding that he doesn't think Kim "is in a hurry to do the test."

While China resists leaning on North Korea, Beijing realizes that the stakes are high, especially in its relations with the United States, a key trading partner.

"China will be as frustrated as anyone" by a North Korean nuclear test, Noerper said. "They'll be the real loser of the scenario. ... It's going to create a huge new quandary in Sino-U.S. relations that I don't think anyone's thought through."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050510 Nuke underground, 20050510 Nuclear tests

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