BEIJING - China has ruled out applying economic or political sanctions to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and still hopes negotiations can succeed in achieving that result, a Foreign Ministry official said yesterday.
China has come under intensifying pressure from the United States to stiffen its approach to North Korea. Its announcement yesterday is certain to disappoint the Bush administration.
Chinese officials acknowledge privately that they have grown increasingly frustrated with North Korea's refusal to resume six-nation negotiations that have been stalled since last year. But they say they see no good alternatives to engaging with the country, arguing that sanctions would only further alienate the regime while doing little to achieve the goal of rolling back its weapons effort.
The Foreign Ministry's comments suggest that China's strategy for dealing with North Korea remains basically unchanged despite assertions from U.S. intelligence officials that Pyongyang may be preparing to conduct a nuclear test and despite the repeated appeals of the Bush administration urging Beijing to take a tougher line.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, called recent developments related to the North's weapons program "worrying." But he said the United States and North Korea had expressed a commitment to resume negotiations and that China had "not lost hope" in arranging a new round of talks.
Liu rejected suggestions that China should reduce oil or food shipments to North Korea, calling those part of its "normal trade" with its communist neighbor that should be separated from the nuclear problem. "The normal trade flow should not be linked up with the nuclear issue," he said. "We oppose trying to address the problem through strong-arm tactics."
Since the United States accused North Korea of violating a pact to end its nuclear weapons program in 2002, China has resisted using trade or economic aid to its impoverished neighbor as leverage to force Pyongyang to discontinue the effort.
But China's continued reluctance to adopt a tougher posture will frustrate the Bush administration, which has sounded the alarm about progress the North has made in expanding its arsenal of nuclear bombs, preparing nuclear warheads for ballistic missiles, and selling nuclear fuel to Libya.
At a time when relations between the United States and North Korea are locked in a war of words - President Bush recently called North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a tyrant and Pyongyang called Bush a philistine - the United States has relied heavily on China to find a way to resolve the impasse.
North Korea's cash-strapped economy depends heavily on Chinese trade and aid. The United States and its allies stopped providing oil to North Korea in 2002 in an effort to persuade it to abandon its nuclear program. But Chinese oil shipments have continued, and overall trade between China and North Korea increased 20 percent in the first quarter of 2005 compared with the same period a year ago.