China Presses North Korea over Nuclear Activities

North Korea responded angrily Tuesday to the U.N. Security Council's resolution imposing sanctions on the North for its recent nuclear test, calling it a declaration of war. While China largely supports the sanctions, the country is taking a subtle approach to dealing with its neighbor.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Renee Montagne.

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The U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions for a nuclear test, and today North Korea responded angrily. It says the measures amount to a declaration of war. The U.S. is pressing North Korea's neighbors to implement the sanctions strictly.

Let's begin our coverage this morning with North Korea's main ally - China. It has balked at one provision of the resolution - stopping shipments headed for North Korea to search for military hardware.

But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, there are signs that China's position toward its neighbor is hardening.

ANTHONY KUHN: A statement by North Korea's Foreign Ministry said the sanctions were a result of hostile U.S. policies. It added that the North would deal merciless blows to anyone who used the U.N. resolution to violate its sovereignty. It didn't specify what those blows might be.

China has been careful not to be seen as trampling on the North's sovereignty, but it does appear to be tightening some screws.

Anthony Banbury is the World Food Programme's regional director for Asia. He says that China has significantly reduced its food exports to the impoverished country.

Mr. ANTHONY BANBURY (Asia Regional Director, World Food Programme): We try and track as best as possible the food coming in from China, either bi-lateral gifts, concessional loans or commercial exports from China to North Korea. And based on our best estimate, relying on whatever information we can acquire, it seems that the amount of food from China to North Korea is about one-third now compared to what it was at this time last year.

KUHN: China's Foreign Ministry would neither confirm nor deny the World Food Programme's findings. China still provides the majority of the North's fuel and food aid.

The U.S. government has pointed to Chinese customs inspections at the North Korean border as a sign that Beijing is actively implementing the sanctions. Xu Guangyu, a director of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, says that Chinese customs are just performing routine checks. He says that China sees searching North Korean ships and planes as too provocative.

Mr. XU GUANGYU (Director, China Arms Control and Disarmament Association): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: I don't think that China will participate in searching ships and airplanes, he said. China will apply appropriate controls on our border with North Korea in keeping with the spirit of the U.N. resolution.

Other observers point to a barbed wire and concrete fence that Chinese troops are building on the border with North Korea as a sign of frostier relations between the two countries. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters today the fence was not related to the nuclear issue.

Mr. LIU JIANCHAO (Spokesman, Chinese Foreign Ministry): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: The aim of building these structures, he said, is to improve border control facilities and maintain good order on the frontier. It's just routine construction and it was started in the 1990's.

When China does exert diplomatic pressure on another country, it usually doesn't publicize it and its moves are usually ones it can deny. In 2003, China briefly stopped its oil exports to North Korea, but blamed it on a technical glitch. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu points out that China is still hopeful of coaxing North Korea back to the negotiating table.

Mr. JIANCHAO: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Sanctions are not our ultimate aim, he says. Our ultimate aim is the nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula.

If China's sanctions appear tentative, experts say, it's because China's leadership remains divided about how to handle North Korea's nuclear challenge. Some officials believe that China has accommodated the U.S. too much by signing the U.N. resolution. Others feel that Pyongyang is exploiting China's goodwill and deserves a tough response.

Jin Canrong is an international relations expert at People's University in Beijing. He says Beijing's messages are carefully calibrated.

Professor JIN CANRONG (International Relations, People's University, Beijing): (Through Translator) If China's aid shipments have been reduced, it would demonstrate a shift in China's mood. It may be that they're reducing aid, but not enough to cause a backlash. It's enough to register China's disappointment, but it's not a complete cut-off of aid.

KUHN: This week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is visiting Asian capitals to coordinate the international response to North Korea.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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