Monday, March 07, 2005

China Questions U.S. Data on North Korea

The New York Times
March 7, 2005
China Questions U.S. Data on North Korea

BEIJING, March 6 - The Chinese foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, expressed doubt on Sunday about the quality of American intelligence on North Korea's nuclear program and said the United States would have to talk to North Korea one-on-one to resolve the standoff.

Mr. Li's assessment, made at an extended news conference during China's annual legislative meeting, amounted to a double slap at the United States. Washington has repeatedly sounded the alarm about North Korea's nuclear efforts and has pressed China, North Korea's only significant ally, to be more active in seeking seek a solution.

President Bush last month sent a high-level envoy to Beijing to present fresh intelligence data that the Bush administration contends shows that North Korea's nuclear program is more advanced than previously thought and that it has been selling nuclear materials around the world.

One task of the envoy, Michael Green, the official handling Asian affairs at the National Security Council, was to dispel Chinese skepticism about the quality of American intelligence, administration officials and Asian diplomats said at the time.

But when asked by a Japanese journalist on Sunday to describe China's understanding of North Korea's nuclear program, including whether the country had produced nuclear fuel from enriched uranium as well as plutonium, Mr. Li answered pointedly and with a hint of sarcasm.

"Concerning whether North Korea already has nuclear weapons or anything about the question of uranium enrichment, I think that here you may know more than I do," Mr. Li said. "Or to put it another way, I definitely don't know any more than you do."

Mr. Li's comments suggest that since the Bush administration accused North Korea of violating a bilateral agreement on its nuclear arms program more than three years ago, China has come no closer to accepting Washington's contentions that North Korea already has as many as eight or nine plutonium-based nuclear bombs and is aggressively pursuing a second, less easily monitored method of producing nuclear fuel through enriching uranium.

China has more economic and political leverage over North Korea than any other nation and had agreed to be the host for several rounds of multination talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program. But China has rejected the Bush administration's appeals to press North Korea to dismantle any nuclear bombs and its infrastructure for producing nuclear fuel.

China's reluctance to do more creates a problem for the Bush administration because Chinese support - or, at a minimum, acquiescence - is essential to any expanded international response, including United Nations sanctions, a trade embargo or military action.

Senior Bush administration officials dealing with the North Korean issue have said that Chinese officials, perhaps to smooth their sometimes rocky relationship with North Korea, have tended to take a softer line toward it in public than they do in private.

During the presidential debates last year, Mr. Bush extolled China as the linchpin of his strategy for addressing North Korea, implying that he felt confident that China shared his sense of urgency about the issue.

But China's enthusiasm for the American position often seems confined to private sessions with American officials.

Last June, Zhou Wenzhong, one of Mr. Li's top deputies at the Foreign Ministry, said in an interview with The New York Times that he questioned the validity of American intelligence and criticized the United States' strategy for dealing with the Korean issue. Several senior administration officials later told reporters that the Times report of the interview was inaccurate and that the Chinese had assured them it did not reflect their views.

Mr. Li's comments on Sunday were nearly identical to Mr. Zhou's last June.

One Chinese political analyst said that the ambiguous stance might underscore that China was neither ready nor willing to play a more assertive role in confronting its neighbor.

China's oft-repeated line, used again on Sunday by Mr. Li, is that it wants a "nuclear free" Korean peninsula. If it were to accept as valid American intelligence that North Korea already has at least one or two and perhaps eight or nine nuclear bombs, North Korea would have already crossed that line, potentially compelling China to adopt a tougher position, said the Chinese analyst, who asked not to be identified.

Mr. Li has also consistently said that China aims to maintain "peace and stability" on the Korean peninsula. Analysts say China may well view stability on its northeastern border to be of greater importance than the possibility that North Korea has a small and so far untested nuclear arsenal.

China has sought to arrange new negotiations about North Korea's nuclear program since the last round of six-nation talks, involving Japan, South Korea, Russia, the United States, North Korea and China, broke off inconclusively last summer.

Mr. Li said the North Koreans, after having made contradictory statements about whether they would take part in the talks, had assured China that they intended to press on.

"There is some news I can announce, which is that the North Korean side indicated that it remains willing to continue participating in the six-party talks and that the respective sides can demonstrate sufficient sincerity," he said.

But he also implied that China's role was limited to arranging the talks. A real solution to the standoff, he said, requires direct, bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea.

Mr. Bush has repeatedly rejected holding bilateral talks with North Korea, contending that the problem requires a regional, multiparty settlement.

"These are both sovereign countries," Mr. Li said. "They are the two major parties concerned. So it is for those two countries to increase trust and build mutual understanding."