China called firm backer of North

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China called firm backer of North

China has not made a fundamental change in its policy toward North Korea, the U.S. Congressional Research Service says, adding that Beijing’s “overriding priority is to prevent the collapse of North Korea.”

A report by the research group earlier this month said recent statements from China’s leadership, coming even after Beijing had agreed to additional UN sanctions, indicated no change in its fundamental stance toward its impoverished neighbor.

The assessment runs counter to hopes that China’s new president, Xi Jinping, would reconsider the country’s North Korea policy. China agreed to a resolution of UN Security Council sanctions after Pyongyang’s third nuclear test in February, a step that was widely interpreted as a signal of Beijing’s frustration with the North.

But to Beijing, the collapse of the Kim Jong-un regime “conjures a dire scenario: a destabilizing flood of refugees across its border and the possibility of a U.S.-allied united Korean Peninsula,” said the CRS report, titled “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation.”

“Chinese leaders also see strategic value in having North Korea as a buffer between it and the democratic, U.S.-allied South Korea,” the report said.

The report also said that despite a recent uptick in inter-Korean relations, hopes for a return to six-party talks to negotiate North Korea’s denuclearization were “distant.”

The United States depends on Beijing’s leverage, the report said, to relay messages to Pyongyang and to cooperate occasionally in punishing the North for its actions.

China on Tuesday banned a long list of equipment and chemicals that could contribute to the North’s nuclear weapons program. That could be a strong step by Beijing to limit North Korea’s nuclear programs.

Bejing’s new trade ban followed the release of new satellite images suggesting that North Korea had resumed work at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which produces plutonium as a by-product. The Ministry of Commerce released a 236-page list of items, mostly technologies and products with civilian and military applications that could be used in nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programs.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said “punishment is not the goal” of the ban. Beijing seeks to promote denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, he added.

China accounts for about 60 percent of North Korea’s trade, and in the past has taken a minimalist approach to implement UN Security Council sanctions.

The CRS report noted that Beijing had expanded its economic ties with Pyongyang, supports joint industrial projects in North Korean border cities and, through its businessmen, has made important capital investments in North Korea.

“The rhetorical emphasis by Chinese leaders on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula - even in meetings with North Korean officials - provides evidence that Beijing may be preparing to hold Pyongyang accountable for its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” the report said.


BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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